The Citizenism Project is inspired by and dedicated to my mother Paula (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 Wisdom vs. Despair, I’m increasingly recognizing the influence my mother had on my development. I am increasingly infused with respect for her that I lacked during the brief time we shared our lives until her death in 1970. Coping as she did 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.
The memory associated with January 1st 1970, the day we received a phone call informing my father, my sister and me that my mother had died, recurs most New Years. We had anticipated the call. A few months earlier she was diagnosed with cancer, likely originating in her GI tract and having metastasized throughout her body. 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 we shared. Like 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 5 decades of college, kibbutz, medical school, army, marriage, children, and professional life, memories of my mother remained submerged. That changed in the past few years. An emotional bridge to her has been evolving, a bridge that has in many ways inspired my current passion and has led to further exploration of her life.
As I approach “retirement” from my psychiatric practice, the journey has gained in urgency and relevance. I have been experiencing my mother through a different lens, the salutogenic lens. Recently, unexpectedly I have re-engaged with Salutogenesis, a model for framing well being that was proposed by Aaron Antonovsky, a medical sociologist at Ben Gurion University in Israel. Antonovsky, interviewed me when I applied for admission to the 4th class of the newly established medical school in 1976. His contribution to our medical education was limited as he was on sabbatical at Stanford working on his book Health, Stress, and Coping published in 1979. Antonovsky who died in 1994, was intrigued by the results of his study and observation of the function of holocaust survivors in Israel. He found that while many exhibited psychological pathology associated with their traumatic experience, others appeared to function well, if not to thrive. Rather than explaining their pathology, he was intrigued and asked what allowed the survivors to not only survive but also achieve a healthy level of well being and thrive. Based on the research he conducted, he posed the salutogenic question:
How despite the continual state of risk and threat around us, people are not usually in a state of illness and pathology?
In my early years in medical school, I participated in the 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 mother’s early life experience constituting nearly one third of her adult life . In my late forties, I was made aware that my mother had been in prison in Poland prior to the start of WWII and had spent the war years in the Ukraine, in labor camps. The story became somewhat more clear when I was able to visit an aunt, who filled in some of the details and more recently after my sister, Chana who was surprised to learn about this aspect of our mother’s past, learned more details from our only surviving aunt. Building on the “newly” gained information, I have been filling the huge gaps in my biographical history and gaining an incredible appreciation and awe at her coping.
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 a s seamstress. While sitting at a table for Friday night's meal, a local police officer came to the house and brought the news that she had been arrested. Her crime was passing information about communism in another city. She was arrested and sent to prison for a long time. Only recently learned, from information my sister got from another aunt, more details emerged. My mother was conﬁned (imprisoned ) at Bereza Kartuska Prison between 1934/5 until she was able to escape in 1939. The prisoners made a hole in the wall and escaped.
I came across an article written by Prof. dr hab. Arkadiusz Morawiec, "After Bereza. Polish literature towards the Confinement Centre in Bereza Kartuska. 1939-2018" that provided a more troubling and detailed picture of the prison. While I am continuing to learn more about the experience in the prison, a more general overview about the place of the prison and what it represented has emerged.
The Bereza Kartuska prison (Polish: Miejsce Odosobnienia w Berezie Kartuskiej, literally "Place of Isolation at Bereza Kartuska") was a prison in the Second Polish Republic, based in Bereza Kartuska, Polesie province (today Biaroza in Belarus). Created on June 17, 1934 by an order of President Ignacy Mościcki, the camp was established to detain people who were viewed by the Polish state as a "threat to security, peace and social order" without formal charges or trial for three months (with the possibility of prolonging the detention indefinitely). Initially most detainees were political opponents of the Sanacja regime, most notably communists, members of far-right parties, and Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalists; starting from October 1937, "notorious" and financial criminals were also sent to the camp. Detainees were supposed to perform penal labour, and at least 13 people died during their stay. It has been described as a concentration camp.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.
But it was a concentration camp according to Polish Nobel prize-winning author Czesław Miłosz, Polish-American historian Tadeusz Piotrowski, Yale University professor Timothy Snyder and the Library of Congress. Conditions in Bereza Kartuska were exceptionally harsh, and only one inmate managed to escape. Inmates have testified to the use there of torture. There were frequent beatings (with boards being placed against inmates' backs and struck with hammers), forced labor, constant harassment, the use of solitary confinement without provocation, punishment for inmates' use of the Ukrainian language, etc.
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. Only 2 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. 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 world war two Poland, the soviet union, Israel and the last 6 years of her life in Los Angeles, where we landed just days after JFK was killed, the War in VN was raging, racial unrest was ongoing. My mother never had formal education, yet now I know that she could have been (Or perhaps is my best teacher). 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. 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.
Salutogenesis translates research findings into an individual-based action plan. For example there is research evidence that people with a strong sense of coherence are able to understand the stressor (i.e., comprehensibility), are able to select an appropriate strategy to deal with the stressor (i.e., manageability), and have a strong feeling that engaging with the stressor is a meaningful process (i.e., meaningfulness). Without labeling my process of coping with the challenges confronting our nation, I engaged in my own salutogenic effort to maintain and flourish as a citizen. Feeling marginalized and helpless in the face of the array of existential problems facing our country and the world; the increasing polarization in our country; the expanding inequality and social injustice, climate change I have come to realize that to truly have an impact, I would need to have a better understanding of the political ecosystem of the US and to find ways to impact that system as a citizen.
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, much 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.
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 his stage, I plan to focus on sharing the wisdom rather than succumbing to bitterness and despair. 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.
So this month, Women's History Month, I launch The Perla Project, to honor her memory , and provide a vehicle for my own salutogenic path. The multi-year effort is framed with the salutogenic lens. The effort, We the People @ 250 recognizes 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.”
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.