Ruth Wilkes (born Ruth Landau) is the daughter of Jacob Landau (b. August 26, ca. 1900 in Poland) and Sarafina Hochstaet (b. in Romania, ca. 1900-1905). She was born July 14, 1929 in Vienna, Austria. Both Jacob and Sarafina overcame difficulties in their childhoods to become very successful and accomplished people. A year after Jacob's birth, his mother passed away. His father remarried, and his grandfather, a rabbi, cared for Jacob until he was thirteen. Then, due to economic difficulties, his father gave him some money and turned him out to make his own way in the world. From Ruzdoviany, Poland Jacob walked to Vienna, Austria in search of work. There, he and a non-Jewish friend, Mr. Korbler started a business making neck-ties. As this was not profitable, they began to make and sell chocolate candies. Over time, they were able to buy a chocolate making plant which became one of the largest in Austria (Idis Werke).
Sarafina Hochstaet grew up in Strulowitz, Romania, where she began working in her father's hardware store at a very young age. She was very drawn to singing, and had a beautiful voice. Following her parents' divorce, her mother, Frima, moved to Austria with her five children. Sarafina's oldest sister, Regina, opened a seamstress shop and along with her mother created a highly successful couture house.
Jacob and Sarafina Landau were married in Vienna, where they had two children: Ruth (b. 1929) and Raoul (b. 1936). Ruth attended a private school until 1937, when restrictions on Jews forced her family to move her to a Jewish school. She remembers that Hitler Youth targeted Jewish school children, attacking them with rocks or knives as they walked between home and school. After the Anschluss, the friendship between Jacob's family and his non-Jewish partner's family continued, but could not be public. On the night of Kristallnacht, Jacob narrowly escaped harm with the help of one of his employees, who saw him pass in the street and took him into his house overnight. However, the next day when Jacob returned home, he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald. After a time, he was released, but then was arrested a second time and sent back to Buchenwald. After his second release, the family decided to try to leave Austria. With Italian visas forged by a non-Jewish friend at the Italian embassy, Jacob, Sarafina, Ruth, and Raoul set off by railcar. As they had had to leave nearly all of their possessions behind, Sarafina hid her valuables in Ruth's teddy bear. At the Swiss/Italian border crossing, armed Nazi soldiers boarded the train to check the travelers' papers. Convinced by the forged passports, they allowed the Landau family to continue on through Trieste and finally to Abbazia in northern Italy.
The Landau family stayed in Italy six or seven months supporting themselves with the valuables smuggled in the teddy bear. Soon they became friendly with a family of Yugoslav descent who assisted them until Jacob's sister, Anna, who was already in the U.S., sent them money. By October or November, talk of Mussolini's pact with Hitler led the Landau family to make plans to immigrate to the United States. Ruth and Raoul, having been born in Austria, were eligible for American visas, but their parents were considered stateless and therefore ineligible. It was decided that Ruth, who was nine years old at the time, would travel alone initially, and the rest of the family would follow as soon as possible. With her father, Ruth traveled from Trieste to Naples, then to the steamship "The Vulcania." As Ruth and her father said goodbye, a woman next to them noticed his tears and offered to take care of Ruth through the trip. The woman, Lola Gross, let Ruth stay with her in her room and became a close friend of the family.
When they arrived in New York in December 1939, Ruth discovered that the State Department had not notified aunt and uncle of her arrival. Lola left her temporarily in the care of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Assistance Society. Fortunately, Ruth had a photo of her aunt with a phone number, so they were able to contact her. After several hours of waiting Ruth's aunt, Anna, picked her up in a taxi. Through Anna's efforts, the rest of the family was also able to secure visas and join Ruth in the U.S. six months later. Ruth's parents later divorced, and her father Jacob returned to Vienna and remarried. Jacob's former business partner had kept up their business and presented him with a share of the profits on his return. Ruth's maternal grandmother, Frima, was able to escape to La Paz, Bolivia with her children, where she lived the rest of her life.