NEW YORK — Ruth Westheimer was 10 years old in 1939, when she boarded a train leaving Germany with 300 other Jewish children. She brought along one doll, a favorite named Matilda. But a younger child was crying inconsolably, so Westheimer gave the little girl her doll. Because, she says, “she needed it more.”
Today Dr. Ruth, America’s favorite sex therapist, is 88. She lives in a New York apartment teeming with books and photos and honorary degrees.
Room after miniature room lovingly arranged by liver-spotted hands. They give her joy and comfort and slivers of the innocence she lost so long ago.
Westheimer was in her late 60s and already a celebrity when a friend in her building began making dollhouses. She asked if she could have one. Now she has two, plus several more square “rooms” on bookshelves and a collection of other boxes and tissue holders that double as dollhouses.
She is exacting about their contents. They are Jewish homes, with menorahs and other religious symbols. The dolls and furniture are from England — she bought most on trips to London and Europe — and were made in the years between World War I and World War II. “I’m only interested in those years that were good years,” she says during an interview in her Washington Heights apartment.
“This one is good luck,” she says, proudly holding up a tiny chimney sweep figurine in a dollhouse near the apartment entrance. “You can touch him!”
The faces on her dolls, she explains, are expressive and wise. “Not like the Barbie doll,” she insists. “Because to a Barbie doll you cannot tell your troubles. She has a stupid face. She’s very fashionable — lots of dresses — but you can’t tell her your problems. These people you can tell your problems.”
Westheimer, who will speak about her collection at the National Building Museum on Monday night in celebration of the museum’s dollhouse exhibit, has four grandchildren. But she says that the houses were never meant for them. They’re hers.
Because what they give her, most of all, is control. “I did not have control over my life,” she says. “But I have control over this.”
Karola Ruth Siegel was an only child. Her parents were lower-middle-class Orthodox Jews in Frankfurt. But her childhood was charmed. She remembers having roller skates, baby carriages, 13 dolls and the undivided attention of her paternal grandmother.
Each Friday, her father, a salesman, took her out for ice cream and then to temple. Again and again he would impress upon her the value of education. “The most important thing for my father was learning,” she says. “Because nobody can take that away from you.”
She remembers hearing a neighbor warn in the fall of 1938 that they needed to leave Germany. Her parents tried to shield her from worry, but “I just knew that terrible things were happening,” she says.
After the night of broken glass — she doesn’t use the word “Kristallnacht,” because it sounds too beautiful and rarefied — Nazis came to the door of their first-floor apartment. Westheimer watched from the window as the men marched her father toward a covered truck. Before climbing into it, he turned around to look at his daughter. She waved and he waved back. Then he smiled.
“Because he didn’t want me to cry,” she says.
Weeks later a postcard came from her father, who was in a labor camp. It said that she should board a Kindertransport — a train rescuing Jewish children from the Nazis.
The note said “that would be the only way he could leave the labor camp and come back to Frankfurt,” she recalls. “So I had no choice.”
Frightened and sad, she hugged her mother and was loaded onto the train in January 1939. As it pulled out of the station, she began to lead the other crying children in familiar songs. The lyrics that stick in her mind today are, “God doesn’t sleep . . . no slumber.”
She knew that she needed to distract the children from their tears, she says, “because I remembered how my father turned around and smiled.”
Most Kindertransport passengers were headed for Great Britain, but she was bound for Switzerland, where she and 50 others wound up in a children’s home that became an orphanage.
For almost two years, she exchanged letters with her parents. She knew that they’d both wound up in a ghetto in Poland. But then the letters stopped.
It wasn’t until several years later that she learned with certainty that her father had died in Auschwitz. Her mother was listed as “verschollen.” Disappeared.
The orphanage, she says, was “a good place,” except that girls were not permitted to attend school. But she had a boyfriend who went to high school in a neighboring village, so every night she co-opted his books, teaching herself history and English.
At 17, after the war ended, Westheimer moved to Palestine to help set up a Jewish state. For a while she worked on a kibbutz, then moved to Jerusalem and joined the Haganah, a Jewish defense organization. Westheimer, 4-foot-7 and full of energy, trained to be a sniper. But a few months into her service, a shell ripped through the girls’ dormitory during the Israeli War of Independence, severely injuring both her legs.
She trained to become a kindergarten teacher, met a man and moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. When her husband wanted to return to Israel, they divorced, but they remain good friends.
In 1956, she came to the United States, in part to seek out an uncle who’d survived the war and relocated to San Francisco. “I wanted to check out if he was as short as me,” she laughs.
She settled in Washington Heights, which became an enclave for many German Jewish refugees. She married again, had a daughter and divorced when her second husband moved back to Europe.
Westheimer had long dreamed of going into medicine, but without a background in science, that seemed an impossibility. So she got a job doing public health research at Columbia University and then became a project manager at Planned Parenthood. There she encountered the 2,000 women who would make up the basis of her doctoral dissertation on contraceptive use.
After a couple of years as a single mom, 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, concentrating on sexual education and studying under Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of sex therapy. In 1980, local radio producers in New York tapped her to do a short weekly segment answering listeners’ most private questions. Her show — controversial at the time — grew to two hours as audiences responded to her blunt talk of erections and orgasms. Her thick German accent and irreverent humor made her an icon of the era.
She has published 40 books, still teaches at Columbia and speaks all over the world. Almost every night she’s out, at the theater, the opera or a nonprofit event. She has a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and plans for new projects in the works. She has no intention of slowing down, because she survived and continues to survive. “I lived, while 1 1/2 million Jewish children died,” she says. “So I have an obligation to repair the world.”
Dr. Ruth has been a widow now for almost 20 years, and in that time, her apartment — the same one she has lived in for five decades — has grown crowded with dolls and figurines.
On an end table is a doll that looks much like the one she gave away — bright eyes, bouncy curls and delicate turtles embroidered onto its white dress. It even has the same turtle insignia on its back. Westheimer identifies with the turtle — a creature that carries its home on its back but has to stick its neck out to move forward in life. She has been given turtle figurines from all over the world, so many that her coffee table needs to be rearranged to make room for a small glass of water.
Her parents and grandmother “would have been very happy to see what happened to me,” she says. And she’s happy too, remembering the joy of her early childhood and the achievements of her life.
The darkness she doesn’t dwell on. “But I don’t forget it, either,” she says.
Dr. Ruth’s Dollhouses Ruth Westheimer will talk about her life and dollhouses Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the National Building Museum. Tickets available at nbm.org.