Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer opens up about her Holocaust losses.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is familiar to most as the disarmingly frank and funny sex therapist and radio and TV personality. Fewer know that the college professor was once a sniper for the Israeli army. But there’s a side to her identity that Westheimer now, at 91, wants to make more public: orphan of the Holocaust. The story is told in a documentary out last May, Ask Dr. Ruth. Raised Orthodox Jewish, Westheimer fled Frankfurt, Germany, for Switzerland in 1939 when she was just 10 years old. She never saw her parents or grandparents again and later learned that they had died in the genocide. Why is she just now sharing this story in full? “When you talk about sex from morning to night,” she says, “you don’t talk about the horrible things that happened during World War II.”

Your real first name isn’t Ruth. What is it, and why did you stop using it?

My real name is Karola Ruth Siegel. I had to take my middle name when I emigrated to then-Palestine in 1945, at the end of World War II, and they said, “You can’t be called Karola here; it’s too German.” But I did keep the “K” as my second initial; I still sign everything Ruth K. Westheimer [“Westheimer” comes from her late husband, Manfred] because that anchors me in my past. I also thought if somebody in my family survived, they would find me because they knew that the “K” stood for Karola. 

Tell me about your childhood in Germany.

I grew up an only child. I had roller skates, I had 13 dolls; I had everything that a child could have wanted. My grandmother lived with us and took care of me. I went to an excellent Orthodox Jewish school and had many friends. 

Then Hitler came to power. 

After the Night of Broken Glass—I don’t call it Kristallnacht because “crystal” implies beautiful chandeliers—my father and I walked home, and I remember somebody telling him, “Julius”—that was his name—“we have to leave. Horrible things are happening.”

My father said that nothing would happen to us the next day because it was a Christian holiday, Kristi Himmelfartsdag (Ascension Day). And in the morning he was picked up by the Nazis. He was taken away to a labor camp, Buchenwald. He wrote my family a postcard saying that I had to join a group of Orthodox Jewish children who were escaping from Frankfurt to Switzerland. 

My parents gave me life twice—once when I was born, and once when I was forced to go to Switzerland. For many years, I thought if I had stayed in Frankfurt, maybe I could have saved them. Nonsense.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel; she began using her middle name after emigrating to then-Palestine in 1945. (Courtesy of Dr. Ruth Westheimer)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel; she began using her middle name after emigrating to then-Palestine in 1945. (Courtesy of Dr. Ruth Westheimer)

What do you remember about the journey to Switzerland?

On the train there was a girl by the name of Erma. She was two years younger than me. She was crying badly. I gave her the only doll I’d taken. She survived the war; when I later met her again in the United States I said “Erma, do you remember that I gave you my doll?” And she did not remember! At the time, that was the biggest sacrifice of my life. I could have killed her!

Did you know what would happen once you arrived?

Not really. The only thing I knew was where I was going. My grandmother said, “You are going to get a lot of chocolate.” And I did. We were sent to Heiden, which is a village overlooking Lake Constance; during the end of World War II, I could see Friedrichshafen [Germany], the city on the other side of the lake, being bombarded. 

You stayed in Switzerland until the war’s end, living in an orphanage and working as a housemaid. 

Girls in those days had to learn how to be housewives. We knew that once the war was over, we could not stay in Switzerland; we would have to go out on our own and be able to make a living. I could not go to the high school in the village. However, I had a boyfriend then, whom I still visit every year. At the orphanage during World War II you could not have lights in your rooms, but the stairwell outside was lit, so I took his books and I studied from them at night. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer as a child, with parents Julius and Irma Siegel. (Courtesy of Dr. Ruth Westheimer)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer as a child, with parents Julius and Irma Siegel. (Courtesy of Dr. Ruth Westheimer)

When the war ended, the orphanage read out loud lists of survivors. Your family wasn’t on them. How did you find closure?

The Nazis kept detailed records about the dead. In them I found my grandparents and my father’s names. Next to my mother’s name was the German word “verschollen” [disappeared]. A horrible word, because it means nobody knows what happened to her. 

The two main themes in your life are sex and the Holocaust. Is there a connection between the two?

Absolutely none. The only thing I could tell you is that in the Jewish tradition in which I was raised, sex was never a sin but an obligation between married people. Because of this, I could talk openly about it.

Openness helps, as does humor—which you have in spades. 

It says in the Jewish tradition that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson remembered. I can use humor when I talk about sex. Not when I talk about the Holocaust. 

You’ve known tragedy. Where do you get your signature joie de vivre? 

My zest for life comes from having been raised in a loving household with two parents and grandparents. 

So it comes from having had a happy childhood. 

Right. That’s a good lesson for anybody who reads this article. ✯

This story was originally published in the October 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.