In A Nutshell
Yes, indeed. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, born Karola Ruth Siegel, was born in Frankfurt Germany in 1928. Her family sent her to Switzerland for safety during the war, and once the war was over, she found herself gravitating back to her religious homeland of Israel. There she joined an underground movement fighting for the Jewish homeland, where she was trained as a sniper and taught to throw grenades.
The Whole Bushel
Most people know Dr. Ruth as the grandmotherly little old lady with the distinctive voice who’s not afraid to ask the most personal of questions and give the most straightforward of answers when it comes to sex. Her forward manner and ability to make anyone blush are so ingrained in us as our image of Dr. Ruth that it’s easy to forget that she was once a young woman growing up in war-torn Europe.
And her story is an amazing one.
Born in Germany in 1928, Karola Ruth Siegel saw her Jewish father taken away by Nazi soldiers in 1933. She was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, beyond the Nazi’s reach, where she stayed for six years through the war. Long hours spent poring over books in her father’s library had given her a love of reading and knowledge from a young age, and, not surprisingly, boarding school teachers were a little nonplussed about this outgoing young girl who was talking about—and sharing too much knowledge on—taboo subjects with other students.
When she left the boarding school, she had no more family left. (Never certain what happened to them, she believed they had died in a Nazi concentration camp.) So she headed to Israel, changed her first name to Ruth and joined the Haganah.
The Haganah (Hebrew for “defense”) was a Zionist military organization that was active starting in 1920. The goal of the group was to defend the Jewish claim to settlements in Palestine and defend against outside attacks. In 1941, the part-time, moderately active force became a full-time military unit, when they started to turn against their former allies in the British, who weren’t allowing Jewish immigration into the area. By 1948, the movement had assembled around 60,000 troops; Israel became a state in 1948, and the Haganah became the Israel Defense Forces.
When she joined, the new recruits were evaluated to see what they would be trained in. According to Dr. Ruth, they handed her a Sten gun and told her to shoot. Even today, she says that she’s not sure what made her such a good shot and such a good sniper, but they kept her in that position. They taught her how to assemble and reassemble a gun, and how to throw hand grenades.
Her military career came to an end when the barracks she was staying in were bombed. She was inside when the explosion happened, and the blast took off part of one of her feet. She was one of the fortunate ones, as the bomb killed some of her friends who had been living there.
After a long recovery, she eventually married an Israeli solider and moved to Paris, where she began studying psychology. There was a string of marriages (one that only took place—briefly—to make their daughter legitimate), and a job at Planned Parenthood in Harlem. A lecture got her attention that led to a 15-minute, once-a-week, midnight radio show, and her career took off.
She’s also said that it was her experiences early on in life that have made her the bold, determined person that she’s so well known for being. Her experiences in Nazi Germany taught her to stand up for what she believed in, she says, and we’re just hoping she’s put the guns aside.