The madness of Nazi Germany must have seemed incomprehensible to a young German-Jewish girl in the 1930s, and may have set the stage for the career Ruth (Hallo) Landman later chose: understanding how culture affects the way people act in the world.
Dr. Landman, a retired professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C., died Saturday at Chilton House in Cambridge of complications related to Alzheimer's disease. She was 78. She lived in Bethesda, Md., from 1964 to 2004 before moving to Arlington to be near two of her children.
According to her family, Dr. Landman's research interest was the anthropology of modern society and how the tools of the discipline could be used to address social problems.
''I am certain that Ruth's interest in cultural anthropology might have come out of the simple disbelief of what the Nazis did and the attempt to understand what this Fascist thing was about, although she didn't say much about it," William Leap, professor and chairman of the anthropology department at American University, said yesterday.
Dr. Landman was a cultural anthropologist ''concerned with the individual and what people had to say," he said. ''Once, she taught a course in the anthropology of migration. Instead of starting the course with elaborate theory, Ruth had the students read the first few books of the Old Testament. Here is a story of real people in a real migration."
As a teacher, Leap said, Dr. Landman was ''terribly demanding" and set very high standards. ''You either measured up or you didn't."
In spite of that, he said, Dr. Landman's classes were popular. She spent a lot of time with her students outside the classroom, he said. ''One of the things I learned from Ruth was that you always kept your door open while on campus."
As a child in Germany, Dr. Landman watched in terror as the notorious Brown Shirts regularly marched past her grandparents' home in Kassel, carrying torches.
In 1936, after her father died of pneumonia, her mother moved the family to Frankfurt, where they attended one of the two remaining Jewish high schools in Germany.
Three years later, the children escaped Germany on a so-called kinder transport train and were soon followed by their mother. A ship took them to Holland; other ships brought them to England and, later, to Canada. They arrived penniless by sealed train in the United States in 1940.
Two years later, Dr. Landman graduated from Washington Irving High School in New York City, valedictorian of her class, though, her son, Jonathan of Newton said, ''she was still learning English."
She went on to Vassar College where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She studied under anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict while earning her master's degree at Columbia University. In 1948, she married Otto Landman, also a German-Jewish refugee. She followed her husband to Yale University, where she earned her doctorate.
After teaching briefly at Howard University, Dr. Landman joined the faculty at American University in 1964, serving as chairwoman of the anthropology department. As a teacher, her son said, Dr. Landman ''trained students to use the skills of anthropology to understand and solve social problems. She studied alcoholism across ethnic groups . . . police-community relations, the roots of racism," and the Mexican-American experience.
Dr. Landman retired in the mid-1990s, Leap said, and her last major publication was ''Creating Community in the City: Cooperatives and Community Gardens in Washington, D.C.," showing how community can be created through gardening and yard sales.
Her daughter, Wendy of Cambridge, said her mother was ''witty, interested in everything in the world."
''She was a woman of many talents, professionally and socially," she said.
Outside the classroom, Dr. Landman was a dedicated member of a book club and an excellent cook and hostess until her health began to fail six years ago. Her husband, a geneticist who taught at Georgetown University, died two years ago.
Besides her son and daughter, Dr. Landman leaves another daughter, Jessica of Takoma Park, Md.; a sister, Sue Kalem of Springfield, N.J.; a brother, William Hallo of Hamden, Conn.; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel in Cambridge.