It was a different world that Betty Grebenschikoff and Ana María Wahrenberg grew up in, living in Berlin in the 1930s.
The two girls met when they were 6, and participated in many activities together. They went to the same school and synagogue, had ballet lessons together, and became fast friends.
As the climate changed, though, and their hometown became more and more hostile, the girls’ families knew they needed to move. So on one spring day in 1939, the girls said their final farewell.
“We did not want to separate,” Wahrenberg told The Washington Post. “We loved each other very much.”
Life was very different for them after that. They changed their names (Betty was originally Ilse, and Ana María was Annemarie). Betty’s family moved to Shanghai, and Ana María’s to Chile. They’d promised to write, but understandably the two fell out of contact and each one assumed that the other had perished.
But though they’d lost each other, Grebenschikoff never lost hope. As the years passed, both women spoke and wrote about their experiences as Holocaust survivors, and Grebenschikoff continued to circulate Wahrenberg’s name, especially at speaking engagements, hoping to find out more about her childhood friend.
Thanks to one woman’s hunch, last year, the two finally reconnected.
Ita Gordon with the USC Shoah Foundation did some digging after listening to a talk by Wahrenberg. Gordon had been working with the foundation for almost 25 years, and with her experience and sleuthing skills, she discovered that Ana María had once been Annemarie.
“Annmarie” was the name of a childhood friend who a woman named Betty Grebenschikoff had been searching for for years. As Gordon listened to one of Grebenschikoff’s interviews, things began to line up.
“I had one particular girlfriend whose name I always mention, can I mention it here?” Grebenschikoff said in the interview. “Her name was Annemarie Wahrenberg and I never knew what happened to her and I’m always wondering if maybe she’s somewhere and she can hear this.
“She was my girlfriend when I was very young and we went to school together, and we played together and all this and when we left for China in 1939 we said good-bye to one another and it was very difficult then because we were best friends. And we were going to write to each other but we never did and I never heard from her again and I don’t know what ever happened to her. … She probably died in the war but I’m not sure.”
When Gordon realized she may have just solved the women’s mystery, she was overwhelmed.
“I got so emotional,” she said, according to an article by Rachael Cerrotti for the USC Shoah Foundation. “I mean, I didn’t cry or anything, [but] what I did was stay very quiet and say to myself, ‘You may have to act, but right now, feel it.’ Because there might be a chance that two dear friends might be together [again].”
And meet, they did — right before Thanksgiving in 2020.
“For 82 years, I thought my best friend in Germany was dead,” Grebenschikoff told The Post. “I’d been looking for her for all those years, and I never found her.”
“It was such a miracle,” she said. “It was like no time had passed.”
“Of course, 82 years makes a difference, but more or less, we just picked up where we left off.”
Now both 91, they’ve had their fears relieved and picked up their friendship once more. They Zoom, they call, they email — their friendship has come during a time when so many feel so distant.
“This is a total gift in her life,” said Jennifer, Grebenschikoff’s daughter. “All of us were just stunned to watch the two women connect so quickly and start laughing like they were still 9 years old.”
Grebenschikoff has lived in the U.S. for years now and Wahrenberg remains in Chile, but the two are planning for an in-person reunion.
“Once in a blue moon, there is a silver lining,” Grebenschikoff said. “It’s so rare to find that in Holocaust literature.
“I just want to hug her again,” she said. “It would be a culmination of a lifelong journey.”
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