From Holocaust Orphan to Israeli Soldier to Sex Therapist: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth

Ask Dr. Ruth is in theaters on May 3 and on Hulu on June 1

Dr. Ruth
Dr. Ruth. Photo: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Back in 1980, when Dr. Ruth Westheimer launched her late night WYNY radio call-in show, Sexually Speaking, she says, “There were seven words you could not use on public radio. But I could use all of them.”

The sex therapist, now 90, avoided the censors, she says, “because I was very well trained. I had my doctorate. I had the guts. We say chutzpah in Hebrew. And I had the gift of gab.”

That unique gift turned her 15 minute radio show launch into a phenomenon of the ’80s, and changed the way Americans spoke about sex. Now a new film, Ask Dr. Ruth, tells the story of her extraordinary life.

Dr. Ruth
Dr. Ruth Westheimer in 1984. Donna Svennevik/ABC/Getty

A German Jewish refugee, Westheimer calls herself “an orphan of the Holocaust.” She lost her entire family during World War II. Her father, Julius, was taken away by the Nazis in 1938. As she saw him leaving, outside her window, she recalls, “He turned around and smiled. He did not want me to be worried.”

Approximately six weeks later, her mother and grandmother put her on a train to Switzerland as part of the ‘”kindertransport,” the organized escape of thousands of Jewish children out of Germany.

For more about Dr. Ruth, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

“I wasn’t so much scared. I was more curious,” she says of the trip. “I believed it was for a short time and that I would see my parents again.”

She never did.

It was many years later that she found their names in records from Auschwitz. “The Nazis kept superb records of people being killed,” she says.

When the war ended, she emigrated to then Palestine where she was trained to be a sniper for the Israeli Army. “I never shot anybody,” she says, “but I know how to use a gun and a hand grenade.”

Dr. Ruth
Ruth Westheimer at age 10. Courtesy Dr. Ruth

From there, she moved to Paris study psychology and then, New York City. Twice married and divorced, she met Fred Westheimer, a telecommunications engineer in 1961. Her became her third husband and she calls their 36 year union her “real marriage.”

As she pursued her post doctoral research in human sexuality, she began working at Planned Parenthood, where she trained family planning counselors. Then in 1980, she got the offer that would change her life.

That’s when public radio station WYNY’s community affairs manager, Betty Elam, who had heard Westheimer speak, proposed the idea of a call-in show on sex education. What started as a 15 minute debut after midnight, turned into the live call-in show Sexually Speaking which lasted ten years and led to a series of tv and radio shows.

Westheimer was known for answering questions clearly and often with humor. “When people needed to learn about oral sex, I would say go buy an ice cream cone and practice,” she says.

By the time she became famous, her two children, Miriam, then living in Israel, and Joel, then in college, were out of the house. “I tried to keep my children separate from my public image because it was so much about sex,” she notes.

In later years, she kept her name out there by lecturing, teaching and writing books. Even as she approaches her tenth decade, she has no plans to retire. “Never. Next qvvvvvestion!” she says.

After all, she has a film to promote.

“I have two wonderful children, four spectacular grandchildren,” she says. “People all over the world tell me I helped them by speaking openly about sex. And Hitler is dead and I’m alive. Put that down!”

Ask Dr. Ruth is in theaters on May 3 and on Hulu on June 1.

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