For 82 years, Betty Grebenschikoff believed her best friend from Germany was dead. But just a few weeks ago, there she was in person, standing in a hotel room in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The last time Grebenschikoff saw Ana Maria Wahrenberg was in the spring of 1939, when they were 9 years old. They shared a tearful hug in the courtyard of a Berlin school before their families were forced to flee the country and the Nazis., on the cusp of World War II.
They both thought that this would be their final hug. But on November 5, after more than eight decades of difference, The two women, now 91, embraced once more. “It felt like coming home,” Grebenschikoff said.
“It was very emotional,” echoed Wahrenberg. “It was as if we had never parted.”
The story of their fated friendship, and the series of fortuitous events that recently brought them together, was recounted in international media, including The Washington Post, at the beginning of this year.
Holocaust survivors they had searched each other for years, searching databases and seeking information from anyone who might know anything. They were unlucky, mainly because both women changed their names later in life.
“She was always on my mind,” Grebenschikoff said.
It wasn’t until an analysis of data from the USC Shoah Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Steven Spielberg that produces and preserves audiovisual testimonies of Holocaust survivors, He noticed similarities in their testimonies and eventually brought the women together.
Grebenschikoff, who was one of the 20,000 European Jews who settled in Shanghai, was clear about what happened to her best childhood friend, Long Lost: In November 1939, Wahrenberg and his family fled to Santiago, Chile, where he still lives today.
At a meeting facilitated by the Shoah Foundation, as well as the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Interactive Jewish Museum of Chile, The two women and their families reconnected in November last year on a Zoom call. Speaking in their native German, they promised to meet in person and, a year later, they finally did.
When they hugged for the first time in 82 years, Grebenschikoff said: “We just had this feeling, like we really were together.”
The original plan was to meet in Florida, where Grebenschikoff lives, for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September, but the pandemic postponed their meeting in person. However, by November, Wahrenberg felt more comfortable traveling and booked the trip with her son and wife.
Grebenschikoff went to meet Wahrenberg in his hotel room and “It was as if we had met yesterday,” he said. “It was so comfortable.”
The feeling was mutual for Wahrenberg: “It was very special that two people, after 82 years, still love each other.”
The women, both widows, spent four days beaten as in their childhood. They went shopping, shared meals and, above all, talked for hours, making up for lost time.
“We are not the girls we used to be when we were 9 years old, that’s for sure, but we keep laughing like we’re little girls”Said Grebenschikoff. “It was a great joy for both of us.”
Furthermore, he added, “We take care of some bottles of champagne together”, because, after all, “this was something to celebrate.”
They also exchanged sentimental gifts. Wahrenberg brought Grebenschikoff a Barbie doll in a Chilean costume, along with a framed photograph of her and some jewelry, while Grebenschikoff gave Wahrenberg a small heart-shaped sculpture, of which she also bought a copy for herself.
“We both have the exact same thing now,” Grebenschikoff said, adding that he keeps the doll and the photo on display in his bedroom. “It’s something for her to remember me and for me to remember her.”
Spending time together felt especially natural, the women said, because since last November, they have been corresponding regularly by text message and on the phone.
Everybody on Sundays for the past year, they have had a permanent phone appointment, during which they each sit in their respective patios and sip their morning coffee.
Even so, phone calls weren’t compared to their in-person meetingthey said.
He used to eat at soup kitchens to survive. Now, as a volunteer, I see it from the other side.
For Grebenschikoff, their favorite part of the time together was simply “being close to each other and holding hands” as they walked, said. “It felt good”.
The highlight for Wahrenberg was reminiscing about the old days and introducing himself to their families over lunch.
“His daughter and my son are now friends too,” Wahrenberg said. “I’m very happy.”
The meeting also was deeply moving for the Shoah Foundation staff, as well as for the other organizations that were instrumental in uniting the survivors.
“The reconnection of these two extraordinary women after being lost is a testimony of hope”said Kori Street, senior director of programs and operations and deputy executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
Seeing his story unfold, he continued, “it has been a treasure,” particularly “in a world where hope is hard to come by ”.
Holocaust survivors agree. His trip shows that “good things can happen from a bad experience”Said Grebenschikoff, who plans to visit Wahrenberg in Santiago in the near future. “It was the positive side in all respects. It was the fulfillment of a dream. “
“I am very grateful that something like this can be,” added Wahrenberg.
The two women, who depend on the poles to walk, they have weathered war, conflict and loss. Deep down, however, they are still the same 9-year-old girls., who really adore each other.
“This is how it was supposed to be,” Grebenschikoff said.