Betty Grebenschikoff has believed for over eight decades that her German childhood friend, Rudolf, had died.
The last time she saw Ana María Wahrenberg was in 1939, when they were only 9 years old. The two girls shared a heartfelt hug in a Berlin schoolyard, before their families were forced from Berlin during World War II.
Grebenschikoff & Wahrenberg thought this would be their last meeting. But on November 5, after 82 year apart, they met again in person. Both women are now 91.
“It felt like coming home,” Grebenschikoff described their encounter.
Wahrenberg echoed her thoughts, saying, “It was very emotional. It was like we were never separated.”
The Holocaust survivors had tried to find each other for years, searching databases and seeking information from anyone who might know something about the other’s whereabouts. Both had changed their names later in their lives, so they were unsuccessful.
“She is now called Ana Maria. She remembers me by my previous name of Ilse Kohn,” said Grebenschikoff, who now lives in Florida.
Thankfully, the USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces and preserves audiovisual recollections of Holocaust survivors, noticed similarities in Grebenschikoff’s and Wahrenberg’s testimonies. Their most-awaited reunion was made possible by this discovery.
Grebenschikoff was one of the 20,000 European Jews who settled Shanghai. She finally understood what had happened to her long-lost friend. Wahrenberg fled with her family to Santiago, Chile in November 1939. There she lives today.
Their virtual reunion was facilitated by the Shoah Foundation (Florida Holocaust Museum) and the Interactive Jewish Museum of Chile (Zoom call, November 2013).
They spoke in German and introduced each other to their families. They also promised to meet face-to-face. They kept their promise a year later.
As they hugged for the first time in over eight decades, they said, “We just had this feeling, like we really belonged together.”
In September, they were originally planning to meet in Florida for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year). The pandemic delayed their in-person meeting. Wahrenberg was able to travel more comfortably by November and booked a flight for her son and his wife.
Grebenschikoff met Wahrenberg at her hotel room and said it was “as if we had seen each other yesterday” and that it was “so comfortable.”
“It was very special that two people, after 82 years, still love one another,” said Wahrenberg.
Both of their best friends are widowed and were together for four days. They went shopping together, ate together, talked for hours, and ate together.
“We’re not the girls we used to be when we were 9, that’s for sure, but we kept giggling like we were little kids,” Grebenschikoff said of their meeting. “It was such a joy for both of us.”
Of course, their reunion wouldn’t be complete without gifts. Wahrenberg gifted Grebenschikoff a Barbie doll in a Chilean costume, a framed photo of herself, and some jewelry.
Grebenschikoff, on the other hand, gave Wahrenberg a small, heart-shaped sculpture. She also bought a copy for herself.
“It’s something for her to remember me and for me to remember her,” Grebenschikoff said. She keeps the doll and photo in her bedroom.
Grebenschikoff’s favorite memory of their time together was simple: “Being close to one another, and holding hands while we were walking. It felt right.”
Wahrenberg’s favorite was reminiscing about the old times and introducing their families to one another over lunch. Today, Wahrenberg’s son and Grebenschikoff’s daughter are now friends, too.
Since the beginning of the year, the women have had a Sunday phone date. During which time they sit on their respective patios together and have their morning coffee.
Grebenschikoff hopes to visit Wahrenberg in Santiago someday in the future. Reflecting on their journey, she said their story proves that “good things can happen out of a bad experience.”
Watch the pair’s interview with NBC News in the video below to learn more about their story.
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