A Holocaust testimony indexer at USC Shoah Foundation helped connect the two after he recalled Grebenschikoff's testimony.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 26, 2021.
Childhood best friends Ana María Wahrenberg and Betty Grebenschikoff parted ways in a German schoolyard in May 1939, aged just 9, well aware that they may never see each other again. Their families were finding ways to escape from the clutches of the Nazis. They couldn't have imagined that they would see each other in person ever again, let alone 82 years later. On November 5, the 91-year-olds physically reunited thanks to USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Steven Spielberg, reported The Washington Post. They had spent more than 80 years assuming the other had died in the holocaust.
They met at a hotel room in St Petersburg, Florida. “It felt like coming home,” said Grebenschikoff on meeting her friend, adding that she constantly thought of Wahrenberg. "We just had this feeling, like we really belonged together.” Wahrenberg said the meeting was very emotional. “It was like we were never separated. It was very special that two people, after 82 years, still love one another.” Ana Maria Wahrenberg's family had fled to Chile while Betty Grebenshikoff's family found their way to the United States via Shanghai.
Meeting each other has seen them relive their childhood in many ways. “We’re not the girls we used to be when we were nine, that’s for sure, but we kept giggling like we were little kids,” said Grebenschikoff. The pair, now both widows, spent four days with each other, going shopping, talking, eating and drinking champagne. “These two remarkable women being reconnected after losing each other is such a testament of hope,” said senior director Kori Street.
USC Shoah Foundation, founded by director Spielberg, records and preserves audiovisual recollections of Holocaust survivors. Both Wahrenberg and Grebenschikoff had contacted to find their friend on the database but the only problem was they didn't go by their old names. "She is now called Ana Maria. She remembers me by my previous name of Ilse Kohn," said Grebenschikoff later. Thankfully for them, a Holocaust testimony indexer had a very sharp memory. “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 (Wahrenberg) 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, reported The Times of Israel. Gordon tracked the testimony, before making calls to the Museo Interactivo Judio de Chile, where Ana María worked. The indexer got through to Betty Grebenshikoff, who often spoke at events held at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Gordon then contacted Grebenshikoff to check if Wahrenberg was the person she had mentioned in her testimony. "She probably died," Grebenschikoff can be heard saying in the testimony.
Gordon arranged for the two to meet via Zoom call and picked off from where they left off eight decades ago. “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," said Kirschman. It was also the first time they had heard their grandmother speak German.
It was the pogrom Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) that changed their lives forever. "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," said Grebenschikoff. "That night, I understood why my Aryan friends had turned against me, threw stones at me, and called me a dirty Jew." The pair never stopped searching for each other, even though their hopes of finding another appeared to be fading with time. Grebenschikoff said she made it a point to mention Wahrenberg's name speeches, testimonies and documentaries, in the hope of finding her. It might have taken 80 years but it worked. "It is a miracle and a mitzvah for us both," said Grebenschikoff.