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WESTHEIMER, Ruth (1928- )

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WESTHEIMER, Ruth (1928- ). Dr. Ruth Westheimer is best known as "Dr. Ruth". The 4'7" grandmother has through her career changed the America's ideas of sexual education and literacy. But there is another, less known side to her life: The hardships of the German Depression, the tragedy of the Holocaust, plus the loneliness of being an orphan, and the Israeli War for Independence. She was born as Karola rith Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 4, 1928.

Her mother, Irma Hanauer, a cattle rancher's daughter, left Wiesenfeld for Frankfurt in 1927. Irma took a job as a household helper in house of Selma Siegel, where she fell in love with their son Julius whom she married. Julius and Irma Siegel, were loving parents, who cared for Ruth dearly. Ruth grew up in the wake of the German Depression, and out of the economic ruin grew Nazism and Hitler. Hitler's rise to power in the 1930's didn't affect the young Karola first. Toward the end of 1938 the safety and comfort of Ruth's world was violently shattered by Kristallnacht, and seven days later (November 16), by the German SS soldiers who came to take her father.

Ruth's mother and grandmother decided that it would be safest for Ruth to join a handful of Jewish children being evacuated from Germany. It was meant to be a temporary solution for about six months until her father release and little Ruth had no idea that she would never see her family again. Ruth boarded the kindertransport to Heiden, Switzerland, on January 5, 1939. When she arrived with the other children she was treated like a second-class citizen. Her life was hard and Ruth was forced to enter vocational training to become a maid for rich Swiss children. She wrote in her diary about getting up early, doing the Swiss children's laundry, bathing them and cleaning their toilets. Despite her years in Switzerland, she still hoped to one day see her parents again. But the letters she exchanged with her parents suddenly stopped in September of 1941. Later Ruth learned that her parents had been taken to the Lodz Ghetto and had most likely been killed at Auschwitz.

Ruth was 17 with no home, family or country when WW II ended . All she had was the hope of starting over again in a place where she would feel welcome. That place was supposed to be Palestine. But Palestine was not the land of milk and honey of which Ruth had heard. On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Irak immediatley attacked the new nation, and once again Ruth's world collapsed. Ruth, dedicated to the building of a Jewish homeland, joined the Haganah and was trained as a sniper. On her twentieth birthday she had just finished up guard duty when an Arab shell exploded at her feet, seriously injuring her. Her recovery was slow, but she survived to walk again.

In 1949, Ruth's life took another turn. She got her first teaching job working with Yemenite children and met David, an Israeli soldier, who she married. The next year they moved to France and lived the student life amidst the cafes and streets of Paris. Staying in Paris, Ruth took psychology courses at the Sorbonne. Her marriage didn't last and she got divorced in 1955. In 1956 Ruth received a restitution check from the West German government in the amount of DM 5,000 (about $ 1,500). She was only one year away from the completion of her degree when she and her new boyfriend Dan left for New York. Here she found herself with a place to live and a scholarship to study at the New School for Social Research within a short period of time.

Later that year, Ruth became pregnant with her daughter Miriam, and she and Dan were married. They divorced one year later, and Ruth raised the baby alone. Ruth had made a new life for herself in New York. She received a masters degree in sociology in 1959, with her thesis on the children of Heiden camp. Early in 1961, Ruth went skiing in the Catskills with friends when she met her next husband, Manfred (Fred) Westheimer. They married on December 16, 1961. Ruth became an American citizen, had a son Joel in 1963. She spend the next decade pursuing her doctoral degree.

In the late '60s she took a job at Planned Parenthood. She was somewhat alarmed by the frank discussions of sex which she participated in but soon became comfortable, so comfortable that she began to pursue a career in sexual education. She returned to school and received a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College in 1970 and began teaching that same year at Lehman College in the Bronx. She trained with one of the pioneers of sex therapy, Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, began to give lectures, and in 1975 opened her own practice.

One day, Betty Elam, an executive at the New York radio station WYNY, heard Ruth speak. She convinced Ruth to go on air at midnight to fill fifteen minutes of time devoted to community. Ruth agreed and in September 1980 the cultural phenomenon of "Dr. Ruth" began. Month after month her audiences grew. Piles of fan mail arrived. The show expanded. Ruth started answering questions from letters, and after a year she started to take live phone calls on the air. Before long over seventy-eight stations across the country were broadcasting Dr. Ruth's radio show. With the incredible exposure Ruth received came newspaper columns, books, a movie cameo, home videos, a board game, and numerous appearances on television talk shows.

She has continued to take her frank discussions of sex everywhere she goes, including the Internet. In November of 1996 she launched a Web site. She continues to maintain a private practice in New York, and her awe-inspiring energy continues to astound each person whose life she touches. Dr. Ruth has devoted her entire career to making people feel good about themselves and enjoy life. And perhaps no one had a better time than Dr. Ruth Westheimer herself.

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