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Forgiveness and Resilience Among Holocaust Survivors Subject of New Study at University of Texas at Austin

Holocaust survivors in six U.S. cities will be the focus of a new University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work study on the relationship between forgiveness and resilience among older adults.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Holocaust survivors in six U.S. cities will be the focus of a new University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work study on the relationship between forgiveness and resilience among older adults.

Dr. Roberta Greene, professor of social work, has received $468,416 from the John Templeton Foundation for her research titled "Forgiveness, Resiliency and Survivorship."

Replicating a study originally conducted in Israel, the three-year project involves interviewing Holocaust survivors in New York City, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Dallas.  

"Research findings will enhance the work of mental health practitioners and inform our understanding of what factors buffer against the effects of adverse events," said Greene. "This will leave us better prepared to respond to such traumatic events such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita and those on Sept. 11."

Most Holocaust survivors, said Greene, have now reached old age, a time when many people review their lives, attempt to resolve old conflicts and find new meaning in life events.

"By studying the life experiences of older adults who endured the Holocaust, survived the atrocities perpetuated by one group upon another—and were able to triumph over adversity—we learn about the concepts of forgiveness and resilience," Greene said.

"The insights gleaned from interviewing this unique group of survivors can morally and spiritually equip individual communities and the country as a whole to deal with critical events facing the United States in today’s uncertain world."

Dr. Marilyn Armour, also a faculty member in the School of Social Work, is co-principal investigator for the study as are Dr. Harriet Cohen of Texas Christian University, Dr. Joann Ivry of Hunter College and Robyn Golden of Rush Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Participants in the study will complete forgiveness and resilience questionnaires and be interviewed about critical life events by social workers based at Jewish Family Services in the cities of their residence.

In addition to learning how forgiving participants are, Greene hopes to find out whether the Holocaust experience prepared the study participants for old age and subsequent critical life events.

There are several other questions including: How have these survivors of earlier unprecedented separation and loss experienced the sometimes challenging transitions of the third and final stage of life? Have they relived the trauma of the Holocaust as they experience the aging process? Have they exhibited resilience—the capacity to bounce back despite the exposure to severe risks?

"The power of forgiveness is increasingly being seen as a means of emotional healing that enables people to reduce anxiety, anger and depression and enhance self esteem and a sense of hope," said Greene.

Learning more about resilience, too, can serve to "revolutionize" clinical practice, said Greene.

"Well before the Oklahoma City bombing, the destruction of the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina, health and human service providers increasingly were turning their attention to understanding and enhancing the characteristics that enable people to successfully overcome the psychological impact of traumatic events," she said.

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation, established in 1987, is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness and creativity.

For more information contact: Nancy Neff, The University of Texas at Austin Office of Public Affairs, 512-471-6504; Dr. Roberta Greene, School of Social Work, professor and The Louis and Ann Wolens Centennial Chair in Gerontology and Social Welfare, 512-232-4168.