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In May of 2007, noted American poet and novelist and son of Holocaust refugees Michael Blumenthal went to South Africa to volunteer at C.A.R.E., a rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured baboons founded by Rita Miljo. Rita was a Lithuanian-born childhood member of the Hitler Youth who had gone on to have a life as adventure-filled as Beryl Markham's in West With the Night.
"A lot of people have asked me whether they could write 'my book', Rita wrote to Michael shortly thereafter, "and I said no, because I was envisaging a story both sad and happy, but certainly mixed with a lot of humor. But if you asked me, I would not say no." With that, for the only time in her life, Rita entrusted another human being with thirty years' worth of her journals, and a rare and unusual collaboration was born. Because They Needed Me is that story, a chronicle of primate conservation and the intrepid and courageous woman who devoted her life to it. It is like no other book of its kind.
W. Michael Blumenthal was the United States Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration from 1977 to 1979. Born in Germany in 1926, he moved to the United States in 1947 and was educated at Berkeley and Princeton. He served as an Ambassador and Deputy Special Representative for trade negotiations under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Bendix and Burroughs (later Unisys) Corporations. He is currently the director of the Jewish Museum of Berlin, and is the author of The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews. He splits his time between Princeton, New York, and Berlin.
Rita Miljo was born Rita Neumann in Lithuania in 1931, and joined the League of German Girls (the girls' wing of the Hitler Youth) at age eight. Speaking of Nazism later in life, she said that "only today, in hindsight, do I understand the total madness we were subjected to". After working in a Hamburg zoo as a young woman, she followed her husband, a mining engineer, to South Africa in 1953, where he died, along with their 17-year old daughter, in a tragic 1972 light aircraft crash. After this loss, Rita began a life as a conservationist and animal rights pioneer noted for founding and managing the "Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education" (CARE) in South Africa, focusing on the rescuing of baboons. She died in 2012, in a fire that swept through her home on the Centre's 50-acre reserve along the banks of the Olifants River.
"[This is] a book about a remarkable woman and how she came to play a significant role in baboon conservation in South Africa. It is considerably enriched by Blumenthal's knowledge about baboon biology and his long-standing passion for nature, more particularly, primates. More than just an eloquent and absorbing story of a stalwart woman and her mission, it is about the fundamental ties between nature and human nature – ties that are often ignored."
– Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University and former Research Director of the World Wildlife Fund