She was born March 14, 1925, in Germany, where less than a decade later Adolf Hitler would rise to power — and Jewish families would then be rounded up and shipped off to death camps.
Ruth Stein later recalled how early on Nazi SS officers had come to her family home in Wanne-Eickel, along the Rhine-Herne Canal north of Düsseldorf and Cologne, just east of the Netherlands, and told her parents, Jacob and Irene Salomon, how it would be in their best interests to go and never come back.
Ruth Stein died Sunday at Atria Park assisted living in Great Neck. She was 95.
An immaculate dresser, always with a bright smile that her daughter said "could light up a room," she was the one most of her children's' friends called "Mom" and, later, "Grandma Ruthie," a woman who loved to dance, who loved reggae and ska, who learned to play UB40's "Red Red Wine" on the piano from memory, who kids said had the best snack closet in town. Whose petite size belied her strength.
"My mom had a special light to her," her daughter, Deborah Stein, of Long Island City, Queens, said this week, adding: "She was made of tough stuff. Everybody who met her just thought she was a sweet thing, full of life … I have hundreds and hundreds of pictures of her and she is smiling and sunny in every one of them."
That smile covered up a childhood filled with tumult and turmoil.
Following that visit by storm troopers, Jacob Salomon moved his family to Hamburg in the mid 1930s, thinking his family could blend in, in the big city.
First, Salomon, a haberdasher, sent his son, Kurt, off to America to live with an adoptive family in St. Louis. Then, in 1937, he and Irene sent 12-year-old Ruth off alone on a steamship across the Atlantic to join her brother.
She slept on the living room sofa, her daughter said. She made do.
"My grandmother and grandfather were somehow able to get themselves out [of Germany] just under the wire," Ruth's son, Daniel Stein of Manhattan, said, "just before Kristallnacht, and the family was able to reunite here in America."
Soon, the Salomons were living in Jamaica, Queens. And it wasn't long before Ruth Salomon graduated Jamaica High School, taking work in a secretarial pool in Manhattan.
By that time World War II had begun and family members unable to flee Germany were being killed in Nazi death camps.
Thinking it her patriotic duty — and, daughter Deborah said, also thinking men in U.S. military uniform were "really, really cute" — Ruth started writing letters to U.S. servicemen, trading snapshot photos, praying they'd get home safe.
A co-worker had a brother-in-law, Nathaniel Stein, stationed at a U.S. Army Air Force supply base in Trinidad. Before long Ruth was writing him and when he came home on leave to see his family on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Nate arranged to take his new pen-pal girlfriend out on the town. He showed up in a brand-new suit.
"She said he looked better in his uniform!" Deborah Stein said her mother recalled, recounting the story. "To that my dad said, 'Hey! I had to borrow money from my brother for that date!' They would both laugh at that one."
Ruth and Nate married in 1947. They went from an apartment in Fresh Meadows, Queens, to a home in Plainview. Nathaniel first worked as an architect, then rose to become vice president of a construction firm, son Daniel said. Ruth became a homemaker, raising three kids and welcoming all their neighborhood friends into her home.
"She always made sure we had dessert. She had the best snack closet in town. My friends always said she was filled with 'Ruthieisms.' " daughter Deborah said. All of 5-foot-1 on a good day, Deborah said of her mom: "She really was the classic Jewish mother."
Ruth and Nate, who died in 2010 at age 89, loved to travel. They went to the Caribbean, to Europe, even visited Israel not long after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Old black-and-white album photos show Ruth posed on a beach, Nate serenading her on a guitar, she and Nate on a homemade swing.
In all of those pictures, Ruth is smiling. "My mother was the woman who couldn't wait to tell people she was 90," Deborah Stein said. "That was just the way she was. Independent, full of life."
Ruth Stein is survived by son Daniel and his wife, Bernadette, of Manhattan; son Jonathan and his wife, Betty, of Cold Spring Harbor; daughter Deborah and her husband, James Knudsen, of Long Island City and Dixon, New Mexico; three grandchildren; one step-granddaughter; and two step-great grandchildren. Burial is Thursday at Mount Ararat Cemetery in Lindenhurst. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to HIAS, the organization that helped Ruth when she arrived in the United States in 1937, or the Metropolitan Jewish Hospice Service.