A universal approach to helping people who witnessed or experience genocide may be misguided, says an anthropologist.

The experience of genocide as transmitted trauma may not be universal but in the fields of human rights and memory studies, giving testimony about one's personal experience of genocide is believed to be both a moral duty and a psychological imperative for the wellbeing of the individual and the persecuted group to which they belong. The coping strategies for victims of genocide tend to be uniform: tell your story and do not let the violence you suffered be forgotten. What about descendants?

 Carol Kidron, the author of a new paper, did interviews with Jewish-Israeli children of Holocaust survivors and Cambodian-Canadians whose parents were persecuted at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Virtually all subjects rejected the pathologizing construct of transmitted Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Scientists don't like when anecdotes are evidence but in anthropology, all that can be known are what people say and the children's stories show key differences in the genocidal legacies of Cambodian-Canadian and Jewish-Israeli trauma descendants.

While the Jewish-Israeli subjects felt that they bore some emotional scars that were passed on by their parents, they opposed the idea that they have been afflicted by these inherited traces of the Holocaust. Instead, these 'markers of emotional difference' may serve instead as an empowering way to carry on their parents' memory. Cambodian-Canadians not only resist the stigma of trauma but do not feel that the genocide has not left them psycho-socially impaired in any way. Instead of remembering tragedy, the Cambodian-Canadian subjects invoked Karma and subscribed to Buddhist forward-looking attitudes.

Despite their differences, both accounts defy the tropes of victimization and trauma that pervade scholarship on genocide and humanitarian practice. The author argues that religious worldviews and cultural values frame responses to trauma.

Cultural paradigms may valorize or marginalize the importance of remembrance, and the author calls for scholars and humanitarian workers to take into account the diversity of cultural frameworks for remembrance when dealing with descendants of genocide victims. In other words, it's all subjective. 

Published in Current Anthropology