Chimney Sweep

For Dr. Ruth, attachment to dolls dates to childhood

NEW YORK – Ruth Westheimer was 10 years old in 1939 when she boarded a train leaving Germany with 300 other Jewish children.

She took a doll with her, a favorite doll named Matilda. But a younger child was crying inconsolably, so Westheimer gave the little girl her doll — because, as she says today, she “needed it more.”

Nowadays, Dr. Ruth, America's favorite sex therapist, 88 years old. She lives in a New York apartment full of books, photos and honorary degrees.

And dollhouses. They give her joy and comfort and a touch of the innocence she lost so long ago, she said.

Westheimer was in his late 60s and already a celebrity when a friend started building dollhouses. Westheimer asked if she could have one. Now she has two and several more square “rooms” in bookshelves, as well as a collection of other boxes and tissue holders that double as dollhouses.

She attaches great importance to their content. They are Jewish houses with menorahs and other religious symbols. The dolls and furniture come from England and were made in the years between World War I and World War II – “the good years,” as she called them.

“It’s good luck,” Westheimer said, proudly holding up a small chimney sweep figurine in a dollhouse near the apartment entrance. “You can touch him!”

The faces of her dolls are expressive and wise. “Not like the Barbie doll,” she said. “Because you can’t tell your problems to a Barbie doll. You can tell these people your problems.”

Westheimer has four grandchildren, but the dollhouses were not intended for them. These are yours.

“I had no control over my life,” she said. “But I have control over it.”

Karola Ruth Siegel was an only child. Her parents were lower-middle-class Orthodox Jews in Frankfurt, but her childhood was enchanted. She remembers roller skates, 13 dolls and the undivided attention of her paternal grandmother.

Every Friday, her father, a salesman, took her to get ice cream and then to the temple. He repeatedly emphasized to her the value of education. “The most important thing for my father was learning,” she said, “because no one can take that away from you.”

She remembered hearing a neighbor warn them in the fall of 1938 that they would have to leave Germany. Her parents tried to keep her from worrying, but “I just knew terrible things were happening.”

After “Kristallnacht” in November 1938 – she doesn’t use the word “Kristallnacht” because it sounds too beautiful and noble – Nazis stood at the door of her apartment on the first floor. Westheimer watched from the window as the men led her father to a covered truck. Before he climbed in, he turned and looked at his daughter. She waved and he waved back. Then he smiled.

“Because he didn’t want me to cry,” she said.

Weeks later, a postcard came from her father, who was in the labor camp. It said she should board a Kindertransport – a train that saves Jewish children from the Nazis.

Frightened and sad, she hugged her mother and was loaded onto the train in January 1939, less than a year before the outbreak of World War II. She knew she had to distract other children from her tears, she said, “because I remembered my dad turning around and smiling.”

Most of the Kindertransport's passengers were headed to Britain, but she was headed to Switzerland, where she and 50 others ended up in a children's home that became an orphanage.

She exchanged letters with her parents for almost two years. She knew that they had both ended up in a ghetto in Poland. But then the letters stopped. It was only a few years later that she learned for certain that her father had died in Auschwitz. Her mother was listed as “missing.” Disappeared.

After the war, she trained as a kindergarten teacher, helped Israel in its fight for independence and moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. She had married, but when her husband wanted to return to Israel, they divorced; They remain good friends.

In 1956 she moved to the United States, also to visit an uncle who had survived the war and moved to San Francisco. “I wanted to find out if he was as short as me,” she said, laughing.

She settled in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, which became an enclave for many German-Jewish refugees. She remarried, had a daughter, and divorced when her second husband returned to Europe.

After a few years as a single mother, she met Fred Westheimer, a telecommunications engineer to whom she would be married for almost 38 years. He adopted her daughter and together they had a son.

Westheimer received a doctorate in education from Columbia University with a concentration in sex education and studied with Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of sex therapy.

In 1980, local radio producers in New York commissioned her to write a short weekly segment in which she answered listeners' most private questions. Her then-controversial show grew to two hours as audiences responded to her blunt conversations about erections and orgasms. Her strong German accent and irreverent humor made her an icon of the time.

She has published 40 books, still teaches at Columbia and lectures around the world. Almost every evening she is out and about, at the theater, the opera or at a charitable event. She has a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and has new projects in the works.

Dr. Ruth, who visited Columbus in September for the Gallery Players production “Becoming Dr. Ruth” has been a widow for almost 20 years. During this time, her apartment – the same one she has lived in for five decades – is full of dolls and figurines.

Her parents and grandmother, she said, “would have been very happy to see what happened to me.”

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