The Holocaust was a tragic event that tore thousands of people from their loved ones without any sort of closure. But thanks to a remarkable sequence of fateful events, that heartbreaking tale no longer applies to Betty Grebenschikoff and Ana María Wahrenberg.
After eight decades of missing each other, searching for each other, and bringing up the other’s name any chance they got, these 91-year-old best friends were finally reunited this past November! It was all thanks to a brilliant woman named Ita Gordon and a little help from modern technology.
The besties, who were known as Ilse Kohn and Anne Marie at the time, were just kids growing up in Berlin when the Holocaust began to take root in the late 1930s.
“[The other children] went off on picnics and all that, and I said to my mother, ‘I want to go too, they’re having such a good time, they’re singing, they’re marching,'” Betty told Global News. “And she said, ‘That’s not for us. We’re Jews. And we have to be very careful.'”
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As the terrible situation continued, Betty and Ana María’s friendship went from one of childlike innocence to one bonded by all of the moments they spent hidden away together, growing closer as they were forced to become more isolated from the outside world.
It became a friendship of strength and commitment, forged in the fires of adversity. Then, in 1938, they were struck by Kristallnacht, a tragic event also known as the Night of Broken Glass.
It was a night that was forever marked by Nazis destroying Jewish synagogues and stores throughout the country. They also arrested Jewish men without cause, including Ana María’s father. He was taken to a concentration camp, where he luckily escaped after a month.
“We sat on the floor in our apartment in the dark, and we were told not to make a sound. And we could hear the screaming and the yelling outside and people looking for Jews,” Betty recalled.
Explaining it to The Washington Post, she added, “Kristallnacht was the warning bell that told Jews this was very serious, and we had to get out.” When Betty’s father finally mapped out their best escape route, he took her to their schoolyard to say farewell to her best friend.
“I remember my goodbye with her, and we cried and we said we’ll write letters to each other and we will always be friends,” Betty said. “And she was my best friend, you know? And… we lost touch.”
As Ana María put it, “We did not want to separate. We loved each other very much.”
So in 1939, Betty’s family headed to China. The Port of Shanghai was one of the only places allowing Jews without papers, so it became home to 20,000 “Shanghai Jews.” Times were tough for Betty there, too, as they existed on limited resources and lived through World War II and the Chinese Communist Revolution that followed.
In her 11 years there, she met her husband and finally started to feel more stable. But in 1950, the pair was forced out, along with most other foreigners. That’s how an eight-months-pregnant Betty found herself in Australia before eventually landing in the U.S.
Her family settled down in New Jersey, where she went on to raise her five children. Betty is now a grandmother to seven and a great-grandmother to six. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, to be close to her daughter.
She still holds on to her book of photographs and memories to remind her of her difficult journey — and the loved ones she lost to the Holocaust along the way.
But in Betty’s telling of her story, there has always been one through line: her heartbreak over the separation from her best friend, Ana María. She spent years searching for her and bringing up her name at every public talk she gave, but to no avail. She eventually came to assume that the worst must have happened.
However, over in Santiago, Chile, there was another Holocaust survivor around the same age as Betty. She was also mourning the loss of her childhood best friend.
Her name? Ana María Wahrenberg.
Ana María had escaped with her parents to Chile mere days before the war, surviving with her mom and dad alone. Every other member of her family was lost to the Holocaust.
She went on to get married and is now a mother of two, a grandmother of six, and a great-grandmother of 10.
All the while, she has been carrying out the same search for her best friend Betty. But given that Ana María knew her as “Ilse,” the search went nowhere.
But on a fateful day this past November, Ana María was asked to fill in last minute for an international Zoom conference. She again told her story of survival, but this time, a global audience was listening — an audience that included Ita Gordon.
Ita Gordon was an indexer for the USC Shoah Foundation, an organization for which Betty had given a testimony 24 years ago and had mentioned Ana María.
“There was a voice inside me that told me to pursue this story,” Ita said. “For their sake, I wouldn’t let go.”
After the call, the wheels of her incredible memory started to turn. She decided to plug in bits of Ana María’s story into the Shoah database until she found what she was looking for: the matching long-lost best friends, who had simply changed their names!
After the wonderful news was released to both families, they had to decide if, after 82 years, they should reopen this door.
For the two survivors, it was a no-brainer! As Betty said, “I talked my whole life about her for goodness sakes!” So the Shoah Foundation set up a reunion call.
Many wondered if the pair would have enough to talk about to even fill five minutes — but they filled up nearly an hour and even that wasn’t enough. They knew this was a real-life miracle, a destined reunion after eight long decades apart!
Their call included the full range of emotion: their initial shock, their joy and laughter over their precious memories together, and their excitement about filling each other in on the details, both difficult and wonderful, of their lives since the moment they were separated.
Ana María also shared one of her beloved childhood treasures, a note Betty had written her before they parted. It read, “When one day in later years you take this small book in hand, think about how nice it was that we knew one another.”
On the call with them was their now-hero Ita Gordon — and both of their families, who finally got to meet the renowned best friend they had heard spoken of for decades and decades.
As Betty put it, “I think I have a whole new family. Ana Marie, look what we did.”
“This is a total gift in her life,” Betty’s daughter, Jennifer Grebenschikoff, said. “All of us were just stunned to watch the two women connect so quickly and start laughing like they were still 9 years old.”
Best friends once more, Betty and Ana María have 82 years to catch up on. They video call each other every Sunday at noon — with some extra catch-ups in between, just because they can!
Their new dream is to stay healthy enough to have a glorious reunion face-to-face someday. Ana María has her sights set on a Miami visit so they can spend Rosh Hashanah together in September.
“Once in a blue moon, there is a silver lining. It’s so rare to find that in Holocaust literature,” Betty said. “I just want to hug her again. It would be a culmination of a lifelong journey.”
And it is a journey the world is honored to witness.
Watch their moving reunion in the video below, and share this story of bravery, determination, and hope with the people in your life.
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