|Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00|
From Holocaust survivor to Haganah sniper to sex therapist
The making of Dr. Ruth Westheimer – “Dr. Ruth” of television fame
By Joe Spier
For the Jewish Free Press
Karola Ruth Siegel, who would later become the celebrated American sex therapist, author and media personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer, affectionately known simply as “Dr. Ruth”, was born on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld Germany, the only child of an orthodox middle-class Jewish family. Her mother Irma had taken a job as household helper in the home of Selma Siegel and later married Selma’s son, Julius.
Following Ruth’s first birthday, the family moved to Frankfurt. Ruth grew up in the wake of the German Depression. Out of the economic ruin grew Nazism. Ruth was five when Hitler came to power. Hitler’s rise did not affect Ruth at first, not until November 9, 1938. On that date, a young Polish Jew, whose family had been dispossessed by German police, assassinated a German diplomat in Paris, which gave the Nazis the excuse to launch a pogrom against German Jews. On the nights of November 9 and 10, rampaging mobs in Germany freely attacked Jews in the streets, their homes, their shops and their places of worship. At least 96 were killed and hundreds more injured; more than 200 synagogues were burned or smashed; almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed; schools were vandalized and cemeteries desecrated. Glass littered the streets, hence the appellation Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass.
The Nazi government held the Jews responsible for Kristallnacht and fined the Jewish community 1 billion reichsmarks. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to detention camps. The treatment of prisoners in the camps was brutal but most were released during the following three months. Kristallnacht is generally recognized as the beginning of the Holocaust. Ruth’s father, Julius was one of those taken by the Nazi SS to a detention camp and Ruth’s carefree life, like the glass lying on the streets, was violently shattered.
Ruth did not attend synagogue any more. It had been burned down. Classes at her orthodox Jewish girls’ school stopped. Due to the danger, Ruth’s mother and grandmother decided that it would be safest for her to leave Germany. On January 5, 1939, at the age of 10, Ruth was placed, together with about 100 Jewish children, on a kindertransport to Switzerland. Kindertransport (literally, Children’s Transport) was the name given to the rescue mission of children that took place just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. About 10,000 children were saved. The majority found that their parents had been killed.
The only thing Ruth was able to take with her was a single doll, one of thirteen she had at home, and a washcloth. The doll she would give to a younger girl who was upset and crying. Ruth still has the washcloth, blue and white, roughly woven, sewn into a rectangular mitt, which she keeps in a plastic bag in a drawer in her bedroom, the only keepsake from her childhood.
Ruth’s separation from her parents was to be for only about six months until her father’s release but it would be much longer. Although she was safe, Ruth’s life in Switzerland was difficult and painful. She attended a Swiss boarding school where she was treated like a second-class citizen, compelled to become a servant of the Swiss children, doing their laundry, bathing them and cleaning toilets.
The letters Ruth received from her parents (her father having returned from the detention camp shortly after Ruth was sent to Switzerland) suddenly ceased in September 1941. She would never see her mother and father again. Later, Ruth learned that her parents had been taken to the Lodz Ghetto and had most likely been killed in Auschwitz.
When World War II ended, Ruth was 17 with no home, no family and no country. Like many other Jewish Holocaust refugees, she emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine. She at first lived on two different kibbutzim and then in Jerusalem where she studied to become a kindergarten teacher. She shed her first name, Karola, because it sounded too German in favour of her middle name, Ruth. She also had her first sexual experience on a starry night in a haystack - without contraception.
A Zionist, Ruth joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground military organization fighting for the creation of a Jewish State. After Israel declared her independence, the Haganah became the regular army of the State of Israel, Zeva Haganah Le-Yisrael (Zahal), the Israel Defense Forces.
Despite Ruth’s diminutive height of 4 feet 7 inches, the Haganah trained her as a sniper. Ruth says of that period, “When I was in my routine training for the Israeli army as a teenager, they discovered completely by chance that I was a lethal sniper. I could hit the target smack in the center further away than anyone could believe. Not just that, even though I was tiny and not even much of an athlete, I was incredibly accurate throwing hand grenades too.”
On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel came into being; five Arab armies attacked the new nation. Twenty-one days later, on June 4, Ruth’s 20th birthday, she had completed guard duty and at noon returned to the youth hostel in Jerusalem where she was living when an Arab bomb sending shrapnel everywhere, killing three and wounding many others including Ruth. The explosion threw Ruth 20 feet and shrapnel embedded all over her body. The most severe damage was to her feet; the top of one foot was all gone. It was several months before Ruth would be able to walk again. Her fighting days were over.
In 1949, Ruth obtained her first teaching job working with Yemenite children and met David, an Israeli soldier, who she married. The next year they moved to Paris where David studied medicine. At that time, there was no medical school in Israel. Ruth at first took a job as a kindergarten teacher and later studied psychology at the Sorbonne. The marriage ended after 5 years and David moved back to Israel. In 1956, Ruth received a restitution cheque from the West German Government in an amount equivalent to about $1,500 and moved with her new boyfriend Dan to New York where she pursued a master’s degree in sociology. That same year, Ruth became pregnant with her daughter Miriam and she and Dan married. They divorced one year later. While on a ski trip in the Catskill Mountains in 1961, Ruth met and fell in love with Manfred Westheimer, also a German Jewish refugee. They married and had a son Joel. That marriage would last.
Ruth spent the next decade pursuing her doctoral degree. She was now Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She trained with one of the pioneers in sex therapy, Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, then opened her own practice and began giving lectures on the subject. Every summer, Ruth would return to Israel to teach.
In 1980, Ruth Westheimer was “discovered” while giving a talk on sex education, contraception and unwanted pregnancies to an audience of New York broadcasters. One was so impressed that she invited Ruth to record a weekly 15-minute segment of straight up sex talk called Sexually Speaking on a local radio show. Within a year, Ruth had her own show with added listener call-in to ask, “Dr. Ruth” on-air personal questions. By the summer of 1983, the broadcast was attracting a quarter of a million listeners weekly and had been expanded to two hours. A television program followed. Along the way, Ruth changed America’s ideas of sexual education and literacy. Heretofore taboo subjects were easier to swallow by the public when voiced by a tiny 52-year-old Jewish mother with a Teutonic accent. The Wall Street Journal described Ruth as a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse. Dr. Ruth brought sex out of the bedroom and into the living room.
With the incredible exposure Ruth received, she became a national celebrity and there followed a syndicated newspaper column, numerous appearances on television talk shows, commercials, a movie cameo, a board game, home videos, an app entitled Dr. Ruth’s Sex Quiz. She has authored several books on human sexuality, including Dr. Ruth’s Encyclopaedia of Sex and Sex for Dummies.
Ruth remained married to Manfred Westheimer for 35 years until he passed away in 1997. Today, Ruth, aged 83, lives alone in the three-bedroom Washington Heights northern Manhattan apartment she shared with Manfred. The neighbourhood has deteriorated in recent years but she refuses to move because it is still the center of New York’s German Jewish community, is close to her synagogue and to the YM-YWHA. Although no longer orthodox, Ruth remains a traditional believing Jew and goes to synagogue whenever she can.
Ruth’s collectables clutter her apartment - copies of the sculptures on the desk of Sigmund Freud; two candelabras that came from her husband’s family; many menorahs; a Passover Haggadah from Frankfurt; porcelain Hummel figure of a blond girl in a traditional German dress, a reminder of the types of dolls she had before leaving her home in Germany; the blue and white washcloth saved from her childhood. However, Ruth’s most prized possessions are two dollhouses with miniature furniture, a children’s home that she never had. Ruth says that the dollhouses symbolize her way to have something she can control when she had no control growing up. Dr. Ruth Westheimer loves to play with her dollhouses. The miniature furniture is all pre-World War II.