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'We have to learn from history': Sex therapist Dr. Ruth speaks out about synagogue shooting, holocaust deniers

In the wake of the fatal shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend and other racially charged events that show deep divisions in the United States, radio sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer says while she doesn’t like to talk politics, she does speak out on such events because they mirror her own personal history.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer appeared as keynote speaker at opening night of Holocaust Education Week in Toronto

Dr. Ruth Westheimer says it's important to continue speaking about the holocaust to combat voices that deny it took place. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

In the wake of the fatal shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend and other racially charged events that show deep divisions in the United States, radio sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer says while she doesn't like to talk politics, she does speak out on such events because they mirror her own personal history.

Westheimer, who was in Toronto Thursday to serve as keynote speaker at the opening night of Holocaust Education Week at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, said she "never, never" thought she would see violence against Jews on the scale of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, which left 11 people dead and six more injured.

That violence, and the 2015 mass shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church that left nine black parishioners dead, compel her to "stand up and say how sad I am not only in the synagogue, but also in Charleston, where people went to pray, in a synagogue where people went to pray, it's very sad, and very sad that in the year 2018 we have to see things like that."

"I don't talk about politics," she went on, "but I do talk about how upset I am when I see children being separated from parents, because that's my story. At the age of 10, I never saw them again. And I'm very sad when I hear about all the issues of immigration."

Dr. Ruth Westheimer on her new book

CBC News Toronto

3 years ago
4:29
Dr. Ruth Westheimer chats with Dwight Drummond about her new book as part of Holocaust Education Week. 4:29

Westheimer said while she doesn't talk politics, she will always speak out about the Holocaust to combat the message of those who continue to deny that it happened.

"There are people, which is very dangerous, who have Holocaust fatigue. They say, 'stop talking about it, it's already so long ago, it's like the Civil War, we don't want to hear about it anymore,'" she told CBC Toronto host Dwight Drummond.

"But we have to learn from history. Otherwise, as you know or as anybody who is educated knows, otherwise the story can repeat itself."

Orphan of the holocaust

Westheimer, now 90, refers to herself as an orphan of the Holocaust, not a survivor, because she did not have to endure the horrors of a concentration camp. She clearly remembers the day her father was taken away, how he turned back to smile when he saw her at the window. She lost her entire family at Auschwitz.

"Usually I make a distinction between those people who have actually survived," she said. "I'm alive. I have to stand up and be counted. But I think of myself as an orphan of the Holocaust."

As a child, Westheimer was part of the Kindertransport, where thousands of predominantly Jewish children were sent from Germany to Great Britain, Switzerland and elsewhere to hide from the ravages of the Second World War and the horrors inflicted on Europe, and European Jews, by Adolf Hitler.

Westheimer herself went to live at a children's home in Switzerland and eventually went to Palestine, where she served in a precursor to the Israeli Defence Forces. She was a sniper, she says, adding that she never killed anyone. But she was badly wounded in Jerusalem by shrapnel from cannonfire that went through both legs.

While she thought she'd live there forever, she has actually lived in New York for decades, though she visits Israel — and her first husband — every year.

It was with him that she travelled to and settled in Paris after the war, "poor but very happy." But he wanted to return to Israel after his medical studies were completed, and she wanted to continue studying psychology.

So she stayed on in France, running a kindergarten while studying at the Sorbonne, until one day a cheque came in the mail from the German government: money sent to Germans who were unable to finish their schooling.

She used that money to visit an uncle in San Francisco, married and divorced again, and then ended up in New York, where she lived with her husband, Fred Westheimer, until his death in 1997.

'All they talk about is sex'

She took a research job at The New School, was home to the University in Exile, which served as a haven for scholars whose careers and lives were threatened by the Nazis during the war.

When the money ran out on a public health research project, she joined Planned Parenthood as a researcher. After her first day there, she said to her husband: "something is wrong with these people at Planned Parenthood, all they talk about is sex. They don't talk about philosophy, they don't talk about education, they don't even talk about travelling. Twenty four hours later I thought, oops, what an interesting subject."

Her work at Planned Parenthood formed the basis for her doctoral research at Columbia University, which led to her long-running radio show and television shows.

While she has a new project in the works that she remained tight-lipped about, she said one of her current concerns is the lost art of conversation.

"Everybody's on their phone," she said. "And the other thing that worries me badly, America and Canada, is loneliness of all ages."

In addition to her appearance to kick off Holocaust Education Week, Westheimer is promoting her new children's book, Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth, a graphic novel about her life, from fleeing the Nazis to becoming sex therapist to the world.

With new projects in the works, Westheimer seems prepared to continue offering practical advice to everyone wise enough to listen.

"For example, do not associate with boring people. Ignore them," she said.

"Except if it's your-mother-in law. You have no choice."

With files from Dwight Drummond and Kate Cornick

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