When they parted ways in 1939, two Jewish girls from Berlin promised to keep in touch. One family fled to Chile, while the other made its way to the United States via Shanghai.
Eighty-two years after the nine-year old girls said goodbye in a German schoolyard, Ana María Wahrenberg and Betty Grebenschikoff connected with each other again on Zoom. The unexpected reunion was facilitated by Holocaust testimony indexer Ita Gordon, whose sharp memory linked the women.
“In her [USC Shoah Foundation] testimony, Betty said she had been actively searching for her long-lost friend for her entire life; she even specifically mentions Ana María’s name in the hopes that this will help her find her best childhood friend,” said Rachael Cerrotti, who works as a creative producer for the foundation.
Founded by Steven Spielberg, the USC Shoah Foundation’s archive has more than 55,000 video testimonies from survivors and witnesses of genocide. After hearing Wahrenberg speak at a virtual Kristallnacht event, Gordon made the connection between Grebenschikoff’s testimony — given to the foundation 24 years ago — and Wahrenberg.
“What followed was a series of phone calls between USC Shoah Foundation and the Museo Interactivo Judio de Chile, where Ana María has long been involved in a range of activities,” said Cerrotti.
“We needed to be absolutely certain that we were correct in believing that these two woman were childhood friends,” said Cerrotti. “Ita Gordon’s research proved to be done impeccably well and soon enough we connected with Betty and looped in the Florida Holocaust Museum, where Betty is a regular speaker,” said Cerrotti.
After more than 80 years of believing the other had perished in the Holocaust, the women connected virtually in November. The Zoom gathering concluded with members of both families lifting glasses for a champagne toast l’chaim.
“It was so natural for them,” said Lucas Kirschman, one of Grebenschikoff’s seven grandchildren. “They picked back up and they were talking about random stuff, like no big deal… And it’s almost like language could have been a barrier, but it absolutely wasn’t at all. I’ve never heard my grandmother speak German before, ever,” said Kirschman after the reunion.
In separate interviews with The Times of Israel, Ana María Wahrenberg and Betty Grebenschikoff spoke about their lifelong search for each other, as well as their efforts to ensure Holocaust memory endures in a world without eye-witnesses.
What has it been like to be reunited with your long-lost best friend after eight decades?
Ana María Wahrenberg: If it was fate or the USC Shoah Foundation that has given me back my childhood friend, I don´t know, but this has been a great gift, which, at this point in my life, I am boundlessly grateful for. Betty and I have had several encounters by WhatsApp and Zoom. We talk every Sunday for about an hour… we will never catch up! Our conversations are great, we still have common interests and of course many, many memories that we still share. As soon as we get out of this horrible pandemic, we will try to get together in some corner of the world.
Grebenschikoff: My childhood friendship with Annemarie Wahrenberg ended in our Berlin schoolyard in May of 1939, where we said a tearful goodbye to each other. My family left for one of the very few open ports of Shanghai, China, while her’s was still looking for safety. Over the years I looked for her but to no avail. I never forgot her and always spoke about her in my speeches, testimonies and documentaries. It is a miracle and a mitzvah for us both. She is now called Ana Maria. She remembers me by my previous name of Ilse Kohn. We are hoping for a proper live reunion in person in the fall of 2021.
Each of you wrote a book for your family members about your experiences. Can you describe your memories of Kristallnacht and fleeing Nazi Germany?
Wahrenberg: The book I wrote several years ago was meant for my family. I never thought it would attract any interest in other circles! Regarding your questions: On “The Night of Broken Glass,” that 9th of November 1938, the doorbell rang at my home and I found myself face to face with soldiers in black jackets, who, with a commanding voice, came to arrest my father. He spent 29 days in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
With many difficulties, only after presenting a visa to emigrate, he was released and we were able to travel to Chile. (It is a long story). All of my relatives, on my father’s and mother’s sides, perished in the extermination camps. I grew up with my mother and father only, without any other relatives.
Grebenschikoff: I remember a very sheltered, happy and carefree early childhood in Berlin. All that changed in November of 1938 during the events of Kristallnacht, when my family and I sat on the floor of our apartment with lights turned off. My sister and I were told by my parents to be very quiet so that our neighbors would think we were not at home. While the glass shattered in the streets and our synagogues burned, I finally realized what rampant anti-Semitism meant.
That night, I understood why my Aryan friends had turned against me, threw stones at me and called me a dirty Jew. My parents, who had tried to shield us from the reality of what was happening to the Jewish people, could not do so any longer. Even in later years, it was too painful for them to talk about it. The memory of walking on the shattered glass of familiar Berlin streets a few days after the Night of Broken Glass is forever burned in my brain. Still today, decades later, that sound brings back bitter memories.
Following the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger compared that day to Kristallnacht. Do you agree with this comparison?
Grebenschikoff: I totally agree with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comparison of the insurrection at the US Capital on January 6 to Kristallnacht in November 1938. While watching the attempted destruction of our democracy I could hear echoes of Nazi boots on Berlin streets, shouting mobs threatening and killing Jewish people. It definitely brought back long-buried memories, even though I was just a little girl then.
Wahrenberg: Personally, I believe that it is the small things of daily life, those little details that touch people most. For example, I tell them that when I was child in Germany, I did not have access to a swing, nor to a park, nor could I choose my friends, etc. We don´t get anything — in my personal opinion — from feeding people with so much historical data. The important thing is to convey what it feels like to lose your rights and freedom.
Can you tell us your assessment of Holocaust education in Chile and the United States, respectively? How do you feel about the evolution of your own role in perpetuating Holocaust memory?
Wahrenberg: In general, I think that the level of education in Chile leaves much to be desired. It is still a country where many children don’t have access to a good education. There are remote villages in the country, which cannot be reached and where not everyone has a computer, which is especially important during the present pandemic. The museum has tried hard and we have been successful in many places. I have traveled to several places, where the children and other people hugged me and thanked me at the end of my talk. Yes, we will continue and I will continue as long as God gives me strength, because as you say: There are few of us left, but I am convinced that my words will remain.
For me this is not a job, it is a great satisfaction to be able to reach out to young people and to see that they show empathy with me. I will leave a “grain of sand” in them convincing them to strive for the good. Perhaps due to my advanced age — 91 — and maturity, I have realized, looking back, that the most important thing in life is to “plant” love in our children so that “Never Again” this kind of hatred and persecution will occur.
Grebenschikoff: I feel that Holocaust education and awareness has definitely improved gradually in this country [the US]. This might be due to the efforts of documenting the experiences of survivors and liberators, especially since there are not many of us left. It is now up to the second and third generation to take over what we have started.
Holocaust education has been mandated by law in many American schools. It is so important that young people are aware of this part of history and also the danger of repetition. We never thought it could happen in Germany. And then it did.
My father and my two grandfathers fought for Germany in the first world war. I still have my father’s medals. But none of that mattered as the Hitler regime came to power.
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