For over eight decades, Betty Grebenschikoff believed her childhood best friend from Germany had died.
The last time she saw Ana María Wahrenberg was in 1939, when they were only 9 years old. The girls shared a tearful hug in a Berlin schoolyard before their families were forced to escape the Holocaust during World War II.
Grebenschikoff and Wahrenberg thought that would be their final meeting, but on November 5, after 82 years apart, they saw each other in the flesh once again. Both women are now 91 years old.
“It felt like coming home,” Grebenschikoff described their encounter.
Wahrenberg echoed her thoughts, saying, “It was very emotional. It was like we were never separated.”
The Holocaust survivors had tried to find each other for years, searching databases and seeking information from anyone who might know something about the other’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, they had no luck because both had changed their names later in life.
“She is now called Ana Maria. She remembers me by my previous name of Ilse Kohn,” said Grebenschikoff, who now lives in Florida.
Thankfully, the USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces and preserves audiovisual recollections of Holocaust survivors, noticed similarities in Grebenschikoff’s and Wahrenberg’s testimonies. This discovery led to their most-awaited reunion.
Grebenschikoff, one of the 20,000 European Jews who settled in Shanghai, finally understood what happened to her long-lost best friend. In November 1939, Wahrenberg and her family ran off to Santiago, Chile, where she still lives today.
Their virtual reunion, facilitated by the Shoah Foundation, the Florida Holocaust Museum, and the Interactive Jewish Museum of Chile, happened over a Zoom call last November.
The two women talked in their native German and introduced their families to each other. They also vowed to meet in person. A year later, they made good on that promise.
As they hugged for the first time in over eight decades, they said, “We just had this feeling, like we really belonged together.”
They initially planned to meet in Florida in September for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. However, the pandemic postponed their in-person reunion. But by November, Wahrenberg felt more comfortable traveling and booked a flight with her son and his wife.
Grebenschikoff met Wahrenberg at her hotel room and said it was “as if we had seen each other yesterday” and that it was “so comfortable.”
“It was very special that two people, after 82 years, still love one another,” said Wahrenberg.
The best friends, both of whom are widowed, were inseparable for four days. They went shopping, ate together, and, mostly, talked for hours.
“We’re not the girls we used to be when we were 9, that’s for sure, but we kept giggling like we were little kids,” Grebenschikoff said of their meeting. “It was such a joy for both of us.”
Of course, their reunion wouldn’t be complete without gifts. Wahrenberg gave Grebenschikoff a Barbie doll wearing a Chilean costume and a framed photograph of herself and some jewelry.
On the other hand, Grebenschikoff gave Wahrenberg a small heart-shaped sculpture, which she also bought a copy of for herself so that they have the exact same thing.
“It’s something for her to remember me and for me to remember her,” Grebenschikoff said. She displays the doll and photo in her bedroom.
Grebenschikoff’s favorite memory of their time together was simple: “Being close to one another, and holding hands while we were walking. It felt right.”
Wahrenberg’s favorite was reminiscing about the old times and introducing their families to one another over lunch. Today, Wahrenberg’s son and Grebenschikoff’s daughter are now friends, too.
Every Sunday for the past year, the two women have a phone call date, during which they sit on their respective patios and have their morning coffee together.
Grebenschikoff plans to visit Wahrenberg in Santiago in the future. Reflecting on their journey, she said their story proves that “good things can happen out of a bad experience.”
Watch the pair’s interview with NBC News in the video below to learn more about their story.
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