Best friends, separated when their families fled the Nazis, reunite 82 years later
'It was such a wonderful feeling to have my friend from childhood right there with me': Betty Grebenschikoff
This story was originally published on Nov. 25, 2021.
In the spring of 1939, nine-year-old best friends Betty Grebenschikoff and Ana María Wahrenberg held each other in a Berlin playground and wept as they said goodbye.
Eight decades later, at the age of 91, they finally hugged again at a hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"It was quite unbelievable; it was unreal. It was such a wonderful feeling to have my friend from childhood right there with me," Grebenschikoff told As It Happens host Carol Off. "We've both changed tremendously, of course, but it was just as if I had met her again yesterday."
Wahrenberg told the Washington Post she felt very much the same. "It was very emotional," she said. "It was like we were never separated."
Torn apart as children
Before Grebenschikoff and Wahrenberg fled Berlin, Jewish children couldn't play in most public spaces. But the girls went to school together, and spent their free time in each other's homes.
"We thought that was just fine, because we weren't used to running around outside anymore," Grebenschikoff said.
"We just stayed with each other and we managed even to get in trouble in each other's homes — eating too much candy and, you know, playing tricks on our mothers and so on."
But their parents knew those days were numbered after Kristallnacht — a wave of anti-Jewish violence carried out by Nazi paramilitary forces and mobs of German citizens on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938.
The horrific event, which translates to "Crystal Night," is often referred to as the "Night of Broken Glass" because the angry mobs smashed in windows of synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses.
"My family and I … sat on the floor in our apartment and switched off the lights, and we were told to be very quiet so the neighbours would think we were not home, so they wouldn't denounce us to the mobs," Grebenschikoff said.
"Crystal Night was the turning point for everyone — even for eight-year-olds."
Grebenschikoff's family decided to leave Germany the following spring, on the cusp of the Second World War. Before they left on their separate journeys, the girls' fathers brought them to the school playground to say goodbye.
"We both promised each other to stay in touch and get back together again," Grebenschikoff said. "But it didn't happen for 82 years."
Grebenschikoff and her parents fled to Shanghai, China, where no visa was required for entry. A decade later, they went to Australia, and three years after that, the United States, where they finally settled for good.
It was real and unreal at the same time.- Betty Grebenschikoff, Holocaust survivor
Wahrenberg's family took a different path, fleeing in November 1939, to Santiago, Chile, where she still lives today.
But until recently, Grebenschikoff had no idea whether her best friend's family made it out.
"I wrote her a letter when I got to Shanghai, which I believe she still has. And I told her where I was and that we would stay in touch. But I never heard from her. Never heard another word. Nothing," Grebenschikoff said. "I just eventually figured that she might be dead."
But she never stopped searching for her friend. Grebenschikoff grew up to be a Holocaust educator, writing a memoir about her experience, and travelling the country speaking to school children about what happened.
"Every time I gave a talk to groups of children or schools or universities, I always mentioned her name. And I always said that if anyone knows about someone called Ana María Wahrenberg, please let me know, because she was my childhood friend and I don't know what happened to her," she said.
Wahrenberg, meanwhile, was doing the same kind of Holocaust education in Chile. Both women had tried to find each other over the years, but it was made difficult by the fact that they had changed their first names later in life.
It was Ita Gordon, a researcher with the USC Shoah Foundation, who finally put two and two together.
The non-profit organization produces and preserves audiovisual testimony of Holocaust survivors, including Grebenschikoff. Gordon was listening to one of Wahrenberg's Holocaust talks when she realized her story sounded strikingly similar to that of Grebenschikoff.
"I was so stunned by it, I didn't know what to say," Grebenschikoff said of the news. "And then it sunk in that this was really my girlfriend. This was the one that I was always talking about."
The USC Shoah Foundation, in conjunction with the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Interactive Jewish Museum of Chile, connected the long-lost friends via Zoom for the first time last year.
They kept in touch online over the months, talking about old times and catching each other up on their lives. When they finally met in person, the women did normal friend stuff — shopping, sharing drinks and lunch, and spending time with each other's families.
"It's amazing that we were both on the same path as we got older, teaching the Holocaust, particularly to children and to grown-ups as well, and explaining what happened there — that six million Jews really did perish in the Holocaust, because people think that maybe that's overblown, but it isn't, as we know," Grebenschikoff said.
She remembers a little girl at one of her talks once told her: "Don't worry if you don't find your Ana Marie. When you go to heaven, you'll find her there."
"I thought that was such a sweet, sensitive thing to say for a little girl, don't you?" she said.
But ultimately, she's glad she found her friend much sooner that — and "here on Earth."
"It was real and unreal at the same time," she said. "It was just wonderful."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff.