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Opinion
Peter R. Orszag

Holocaust Paradox: Long Lives for Those Who Survived

My elementary school teacher taught that those who emerged from the horrors of the camps would die young. A reasonable assumption, but wrong.

The strong survived.

The strong survived.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sunday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, causing me to think about an assertion I heard from an elementary school teacher. She said that even those who survived the Holocaust were so debilitated that the rest of their lives would be short. As with many things I learned in elementary school, the reality is more complicated, and my 10-year-old self would be glad to know that my teacher was probably more wrong than right.

Living through a horrendous event, like confinement in a concentration camp or prisoner-of-war camp, does create health problems serious enough to shorten most people’s lives. But those who survive also seem to have other characteristics — perhaps a stronger immune system and a more optimistic outlook than the general population — that tend to make people live longer. New research suggests that such resilience can often overcome scarring.