In 1939, best friends Ana María Wahrenberg and Betty Grebenschikoff were nine-years-old when their families were forced to flee Nazi Germany. They had made the painful decision after the Kristallnacht pogroms. After they separated, the two were unable to keep in touch. After the horrors of the Holocaust, they assumed the worst, believing their childhood friend to be one of the millions of victims.
Opposite ends of the world
But in 1939, the Grebenschikoff family, two daughters and their parents took a train to Italy before bribing their way onto a boat bound for Shanghai, the only open port at that time that admitted European Jews without visas or passports. They fled, leaving behind their family and possessions, just days before the Gestapo came for her father. During World War II, about 20,000 Jewish refugees were interned by Japanese authorities in a segregated area of Shanghai, also known as the Shanghai Ghetto. In 1948, Betty and her husband fled the advance of the Communists, moving to Australia. In 1953, they settled in the US.
Ana Maria’s father was arrested on Kristallnacht but, unlike many other Jewish men who were less fortunate, he was released after only a few weeks. The Wahrenberg family fled in the opposite direction. They obtained visas to Haiti and voyaged to the Panama Canal where they obtained visas to Chile. After living in Chile until after the war, they moved back to Germany for 13 years but eventually returned to Santiago, Chile where she lives to this day.
The two had never been able to find one another as both had changed their names as a result of their multinational travels. But last November, Wahrenberg spoke at a Zoom conference about Kristallnacht. An indexer from USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Steven Spielberg, which produces and preserves audiovisual testimony of Holocaust survivors, noticed similarities in their testimonies and ultimately linked the women together.
The two 91-year-old friends were reunited, speaking by Zoom for the first time in 81 years. After the long separation, the two friends have been making up for lost time, dialoguing online at least once a week.
The two had planned to reunite in person in Florida where Grebenschikoff lives, for Rosh Hashanah but the pandemic made that impossible. This plan finally came true with the two spending four days together.
“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.”
On Sunday night, the holiday of Hanukkah begins, celebrating the Maccabee’s victory over the Seleucids. After lighting the menorah, Jews sing the traditional song of Maoz Tsur (Rock of Ages). Written during the Crusades, each stanza tells of different enemies of Israel that came to wipe out the Jews throughout history. Though the Nazi effort at genocide is not mentioned in most versions of the song, some contemporary efforts have been made to incorporate the Holocaust into the song.
Just as the Hannukah lights offer a light of hope, the revival of a childhood friendship signifies the victory of life over death, love over hatred, and light over dark.