Holocaust causing increased cancer, heart disease mortality in survivors – study

Researchers find 17% higher death rate from cancer among women who survived than those who did not suffer Nazi persecution; among men, 39% more survivors died of heart conditions

Holocaust survivors attend a ceremony at the Mishan elderly homes in Tel Aviv as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. May 4, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Holocaust survivors attend a ceremony at the Mishan elderly homes in Tel Aviv as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. May 4, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The harmful impact of the Holocaust on the health of those who survived it has been found to continue for decades afterward, causing increased mortality and raising the chances of heart disease and cancer, a Hebrew University study found.

Researchers analyzed the death records of around 22,000 people, among them 5,042 survivors, living in Israel who were followed up from 1964 to 2016, then compared the mortality rates from cancer and heart disease among Holocaust survivors to those who did not suffer Nazi persecution.

Among women survivors, there was a 15 percent higher overall mortality rate and 17% more deaths from cancer.

Though the overall mortality for men who survived the Holocaust was no different from those who did not suffer at the hands of the Nazis, there were 14% more deaths from cancer and a 39% higher mortality from heart disease.

The study, by Iaroslav Youssim and Hagit Hochner, both from the School of Public Health at the Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine, was published in February in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

“Our research showed that people who experienced life under Nazi rule early in life, even if they were able to successfully migrate to Israel and build families, continued to face higher mortality rates throughout their lives,” Youssim said.

“This study supports prior theories that survivors are characterized by general health resilience combined with vulnerabilities to specific diseases,” he said.

Hochner noted that the results of the study are significant for the treatment of all people who suffer serious trauma.

“These findings reflect the importance of long-term monitoring of people who have experienced severe traumas and elucidates mortality patterns that might emerge from those experiences,” Hochner said.

The study came as Israel was preparing to mark its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, which honors the memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazi regime during World War II.

This year’s event, which will be marked in Israel on Wednesday evening and Thursday, comes on the back of a year that saw many Holocaust survivors succumb to the coronavirus.

In January, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said that some 900 Holocaust survivors in the country had died of COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic in 2020. Over the year, some 3,500 Holocaust survivors were known to have contracted the virus, meaning that the reported death rate among survivors was 17%, only slightly higher than the 16% death rate seen in the general population for the same age group.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2020, there were 179,600 people defined as Holocaust survivors living in Israel. An additional 3,000 people were recognized as survivors in 2020, while 17,000 died, including the 900 virus victims.

Nearly two-thirds of those, or 64%, hail from Europe, while 11% are from Iraq, 16% from Morocco, 4% from Tunisia, and 2% each from Algeria and Libya.

Those from the Muslim world fled Nazi-inspired attacks, such as the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Iraq, or Nazi-controlled or Nazi-allied territories where they faced restrictions on daily life, such as in Vichy-ruled Morocco and Tunisia.

Israeli state agencies define as survivors anyone “exposed” to the Nazi regime, including those who lived in countries conquered by Nazi Germany or were under direct Nazi influence in 1933-1945, as well as refugees who fled those areas due to the Nazis.

Today’s survivors are all over 75 — World War II ended 75 years ago — and around 17% of them are over the age of 90.

Around 850 Holocaust survivors living in Israel at the end of 2020 were aged 100 or more.

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