Becoming Dr. Ruth

[By Thomas Thorspecken] 

June 9, 1997, Washington Heights, NY, Apartment of Ruth and Fred Westheimer. Dr. Ruth (Eileen Dessandre) was packing to move. Her large bay window had a glorious view of the George Washington Bridge. I liked how the book shelves mirrored the shapes seen in the bridge. The arches of two shelves were like the opening in the bridge support structure and even the square and then vertical arrangement of the shelves mirrored the overall shape  of the bridge support. All the books and chachkies were white. I had sketched the books being created in the scenic shop weeks before.

As Dr. Ruth packed she talked to the audience. Her husband Fred, the love of her life, had died so she was planning to move. This was a one woman show and she held my attention for the full 90 minutes. As she spoke of her youth, photos appeared on the apartment windows of her parents and their life right before the rise of the Nazi Party. Her father was sent away to a work camp after Kristallnacht, but Ruth was saved by being sent by Kinder transport to Switzerland. When packing for the escape from Germany Ruth inexplicably packed a
dish rag fro her mother’s kitchen. Chocolates she had packed were
confiscated and eaten by guards. At 11 years old she ended up in a Swiss orphanage where she became a caregiver to other children. She was not allowed to attend a local school but a boy smuggled books to her so she could study at night.

She recounted her first kiss with a young man whose name she could not disclose since she was still friends with him and his wife today. She was married three times and she discovered that the need for family and the need for touch were things she needed most since she had been denied her family and she wasn’t touched for years after she left Germany. The love of her parents sustained her, but she never saw them again. The last letter she got from them as in 1941 and though she sometimes hopes that they survived the holocaust, it is unlikely.

After the WWII Ruth moved to Israel living on a kibbutz. Hard labor on the kibbutz was as hard as the labor in Switzerland. Israel however represented hope for the future. One fact that surprised me was the fact that she had been a sharp shooter for the Haganah (Israeli Paramilitary). She was a really good sharp shooter. Also because of her petite stature she ran messages since there was less of a target for an enemy to shoot at.

She met a boy, and together they emigrated to NYC and within two weeks she had won a scholarship for students who survived the holocaust. She studied with a passion and eventually discovered she wanted to get a doctorate in sex therapy. A radio station asked her if she would talk at a meeting about sex therapy and she gladly did so for free. That meeting resulted in them asking her to begin a talk radio show and the rest is history. She was non-threatening and wise with a thick accent. She was and is also very funny. When one woman caller explained that she did not like to “go down” on her husband, Dr. Ruth advised her to get whipped cream or chocolate syrup. Also a banana was great for practice.

This was a well paced show and it as fascinating to learn about this woman who always bounced back from any adversity. She is an inspiration, and the show is a delight.


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