The Perla Inspiration
The Citizenism Project is inspired by and dedicated to my mother Perla Rochman Waldfogel
I’m about to embark on the next phase of life - entering retirement. As I move into the stage defined by the challenge Eric Erickson noted as Integrity (Wisdom) vs. Despair, I’m increasingly recognizing the influence my mother had on my development. I am increasingly infused with a respect for her that I lacked during the brief time we shared our lives until her death in 1970 when I was only 19. She led a difficult life as she coped with life in totalitarian regimes, prison and labor camps in Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The Citizenism Project incorporates ideas and activities inspired by her life.
Perla Rochman Waldfogel
The Perla Story
My most memorable New Year was that of January 1st, 1970, when my father, my sister, and I received a phone call that my mother had passed away. We had anticipated the call because a few months earlier, she was diagnosed with cancer, likely originating in her GI tract and having metastasized. Three days earlier, December 28th marked her 52nd birthday. I was 19 years old at the time. The funeral and the period after her death have mostly faded from my cognitive and emotional memory. I don’t remember missing her. She was a loving, warm and caring mother, yet our relationship was mostly influenced by my discomfort with her seeming lack of “sophistication”. In my early years in Israel, she didn’t speak Hebrew, depriving her of an essential capability to be part of the developing Israeli identity. When we moved to Los Angeles, when I was twelve, I resented her inability to speak English. Our communication was further limited by my limited command and interest, if not outright embarrassment in speaking Yiddish, the language that we did share. Like many others of her generation who lived in Eastern Europe and survived the Holocaust, she mostly maintained silence about her experiences. After my mother died, my life radically changed as my father remarried and moved to Israel, and my sister married and moved to Minneapolis. I was pretty much alone.
As my life unfolded during the ensuing five decades of college, kibbutz, medical school, army, marriage, children, and professional life, memories of my mother remained submerged. That has changed in the past few years. An emotional bridge to her has opened up to me. Uncovering more about her life experiences is fueling my current passion to explore my role as a citizen during times of political unrest. As I reflect on the experience of my mother’s encounters with the unjust, totalitarian, cruel world she endured at the early part of her life and the commitment she made to well being , I'm full of love and respect. Even though my mother never had a formal education, she was my best teacher. As I start my “retirement” from psychiatric practice, the journey to become an informed and active citizen has gained in urgency and relevance. On July 4th, US Independence day celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I am launching the Citizenism Project to honor her memory.
My mother’s experience with totalitarianism
In my early years in medical school, I participated in research that explored coping in elderly Holocaust survivors. Yet, I was not curious enough nor able to make the connection to my mother’s experience. Even after writing about the experience of children of Holocaust survivors I stayed unaware and mostly disinterested or perhaps avoiding getting in touch with my traumatic life experience. The story became somewhat more clear when I was able to visit an aunt, who filled in some of the details. Building on the “newly” gained information, I felt motivated to fill the huge gaps in her biographical history. In the process I gained an incredible appreciation and awe at how she coped.
She was likely confined at age 17 for communist related activity in Zamosc, Poland. According to my aunt, the family was informed of my mother's arrest while waiting for her to return from her job as a seamstress. While the family was sitting at a table for the Sabbath meal, a local police officer came to the house and brought the news that she had been arrested. Her crime was that she was in possession of leaflets about an event protesting the social situation of workers. She was picked up by the police as she was getting ready to go to another town with the incriminating evidence. A search of the house revealed some further communist material. My mother, who had limited formal education as was common at that time, was arrested and sent to the Bereza Kartuska Prison. Although she didn’t have a formal trial, she was kept in prison from 1934/5 until she was able to escape in 1939. The escape occurred during a brief, days-long period when the Russian Army was able to repel the German army from the area in the Belarus where the prison was located The prisoners made a hole in the wall and escaped. Officially, the camp de facto ceased to exist on the night of September 17–18, 1939 when, after learning about the Soviet invasion of Poland, the staff abandoned it. She fled to the soviet union and spent the next 6 years in a soviet labor camp.
Only two years after my mother was in a labor camp in the Soviet Union, having been a political prisoner for five years prior to that, she and my father chose to start a family, my sister was born and they moved to Israel. I marvel at the strength she had to move on with life and bring my sister and I into the world. Looking at the photo of my mother holding me shortly after I was born, I’m engulfed with sadness and regret at not knowing her. I will never get the chance to learn from her the Salutogenic factors that enabled her to maintain a state of well being. How did she make sense of the world that she experienced in pre- and post WWII Poland, the Soviet Union, Israel, and the last six years of her life in Los Angeles, where we landed just days after JFK was killed and the War in VN was raging, and racial unrest was ongoing. I have been experiencing my mother through a different lens, the salutogenic lens.
For the past 12 years I have been passionately dedicated to improving and more recently “saving” American representative democracy. Most mornings, I spend a few hours writing, thinking about developing a “strategic” plan to reclaim the role of the citizen as a central aspect of enhancing our democracy. The efforts have been described as ambitious, crazy, and in many cases, people simply didn’t respond. While the motivation and reasons for the effort are understandable, the passion and why of the choice for the project and the persistence has become more clear for me only recently. I found it interesting that after many decades, many of which I spent as a psychiatrist in the Philadelphia area, I am actively building on rituals and national narratives, to address the deep polarization in our body politic.
The Citizenism Project and the Journey forward
As I enter the 8th decade of my life, a stage of life whose task is defined by Erick Erickson as ego integrity vs. despair, I experience my mother’s short life journey as an inspiration. The sacrifice she made to improve the circumstances of her fellow citizens with th etools she had, leaflets is powerful. It provides me with purpose and a sense of coherence, a fundamental aspect of salutogenesis that recognizes the importance of having a mental frame, a lens through which we view our experience.
Personally, the project offers an opportunity for manifesting in the world a project that is informed by an effort to examine and build on first principles and shared vision that inspired the founders while incorporating a more inclusive people to share in the premise of the Declaration of Independence. The project reflects my personal growth as a citizen and utilizes the many influences that have shaped my mental models of the world and allow me to believe in ideas that can improve our body politic. At this stage, I plan to focus on sharing the wisdom rather than succumbing to bitterness and despair.
The citizenism Project is a vehicle for my own salutogenic path and to honor my political agency. The multi-year effort is framed with the salutogenic lens. We the People @ 250, is the road map that builds on the recognition of the work in progress that is the United States and provides a plan to expand the promise of our founders memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. The project offers a year-by-year citizen-initiated and driven effort to create a salutogenic experience to all Americans. We seek to achieve by 2026 an America that more closely resembles the American Creed articulated in 1776.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
To heal this divisiveness, it is important to revisit the vision that led to the creation of the United States, to facilitate meaningful public deliberations and to develop a tool box that can help our citizens engage in the public sphere. The process seeks to build a guide, a user's manual of sorts, to bring the ideals of the constitution to engage civic life in the 21st century.
Here are highlights of this “crazy” ambitious effort, whose foundations reflect my evolving thoughts and personal development over the past decade and of course more generally a lifetime.
To learn about my path to We The People @250 follow the link to an article on Shrinkthe government.org