Where Do Grandchildren Come From?
12/18/98
Associate Editor

Karola Ruth Siegel remembers a far and distant Germany. Maybe she was 6, maybe 1935. ìI was visiting my maternal grandparents, Oma and Opa, on their farm in Wiesenfeld. There were geese. I didnít like the geese to be cooped up. So I let them free, out of their pens. The geese went off into the village and everyone had to go catch the geese! It was a great commotion. I donít remember getting punished. Maybe because I was a favored granddaughter. Not that I did it again.îFrankfort, 1938: Her paternal grandmother, Oma, was wearing a long skirt that touched the floor. From the low seam of her dress, Oma took money and gave it to the men in shiny boots; maybe they could take care of her son, Karolaís father. From the window you could see him being taken to a truck holding many men. She remembers the truckís engine rumbling as it idled. When Chanukah came soon after, Karola lit the candles by herself.

As it was for so many others, that was the last family Chanukah of the German 1930s. Twelve days after lighting the eighth candle, 10-year-old Karola waved goodbye from the Frankfort railway station as the Kindertransport train chugged away into Switzerland. She never saw her family again.

Nobody calls Dr. Ruth Westheimer ìKarolaî anymore, and the laughs come easier 60 Chanukahs later. She jokes with a friend that before she met him he had no children but after meeting her he figured out how to have three children in four years. Of course, the Karola within knows that the lifecycle of a family is never so simple: Husband Fred Westheimer, whom she met skiing in the Catskills, died last year. This year, she turned 70 and became a grandmother for the third time, a baby named after the grandfather.ì

Nobody wants to get old,î she says. ìBut I made a decision to let my hair go gray. Iím not saying forever. Maybe someday Iíll color it again. Even before Fred got sick, I had enough of coloring my hair. So many old people donít want to do that. Youíll notice today how many grandmothers donít want to be called grandmother. They want to be called mama, or by a first name. Thereís a reluctance to move to a new stage. But I have a strong feeling this is a new and good chapter in my life.î

Sitting in her East Side office, she muses that for so many Holocaust survivors these recent years are the first time in a half-century theyíve had a three-generation family. How many hundreds of thousands of Jewish children in the 1950s and í60s never knew grandparents?ìSince Ari was born, 8 years ago, I knew I would do a project on grandparents,î says Dr. Ruth. On the last night of Chanukah, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m., PBS will broadcast ìNo Missing Link,î a documentary she produced and narrated. ìThe aim is to show how important grandparents can be in maintaining family traditions. It focuses particularly on the Russian grandmothers who contributed so enormously to the passing on of Jewish, Christian and Muslim rites and values in the Soviet Union, despite the pressures under Communism.î

The project accompanies a childrenís book, ìDr. Ruth Talks About Grandparentsî (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and an adult book, ìGrandparenthoodî (Routledge).ìI havenít given up talking about that certain subject Iím best known for. I will still talk about sex from morning to night. I like to do sex therapy. But my doctorate is in the interdisciplinary study of the family, so every year I do some project that is not just about sex,î says Dr. Ruth. ìI get a lot of satisfaction helping people to understand more about grandparents, of which there will be 90 million in this country within five years.

Not all her projects are so public. For six years sheís been president of the Washington Heights Y, a neighborhood once known for its Frankfurt refugees. ìWe feed 300 adults a kosher meal every day. Even for those who have food, it gives them a reason to get dressed and go someplace.î

Dr. Ruth explains that part of ìNo Missing Linkî ìis the sad background I come from. I need to set a matzeva, a stone, for that paternal grandmother who lived with us, and my maternal grandparents who lived on the farm. On the one hand, this book is a memorial; on the other hand, their genes are in three new grandchildren. When I look at them, especially when I first looked at Ari, I said I triumphed again: Hitler didnít want me to be alive; he certainly didnít want me to have a grandchild.îShe recalls, ìMy paternal grandmother took care of me while my parents worked. Weíd go to the Palmengarten park. She, her sister and their friends went together with all their grandchildren. The older women ate pastries, white pastry crumbling with cream. Before she was deported, after I was gone, she wrote me every week: that I should trust in God, enjoy my youth, and how much she loves me.îNow the former Karola tells Ari to call her Oma ó ìOmi,î he says ó and she takes him to a park of her own. People call out, ìDr. Ruth!îìI say hello back, and usually I love that, but if anyone tries to ask me questions, I say right now Iím Ariís grandmother. He knows what I do, that I talk about how babies are born.î

The names of her grandparents are on a stained-glass window in the Hebrew Tabernacle in Washington Heights. In her mindís eye she can see Chanukah, 1938. She and her grandchildren light menorahs 60 years later.Only in this haunted century can the very fact of a three-generation family be a Chanukah present all its own. Itís always been her fascination: Where do grandchildren come from?

Last Update:

09/10/2009 - 15:31

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