80 years later, childhood friends reunited via Zoom
ST. PETERSBURG — The 9-year-old girls met in the schoolyard near their Berlin homes to say goodbye.
Ilse Betty Grebenschikoff and Anne Maria Wahrenberg were best friends who leaned on one another during the early days of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish campaign. In 1939, both of their families were preparing to flee Germany for different destinations.
Grebenschikoff and Wahrenberg embraced, cried and promised to find one another some day.
As the years passed, they each thought the other had not escaped and was among the millions murdered in the Holocaust. But neither stopped searching.
At 91, Grebenschikoff, who goes by Betty, has lived in St. Petersburg for about a decade.
The friends met when they were 6 and seated next to one another in school. They were inseparable. They played in the park, went to the movies, worshipped at the same synagogue and took ballet classes together.
Then came the rise of the Nazis.
“It was dangerous because the other children, who were not Jewish, who we used to play with turned on us,” Grebenschikoff said. “They were brainwashed to hate us.”
Those former friends, she said, pushed her into the gutter and threw stones at her.
“It was hard,” Grebenschikoff said, but at least she still had her best friend. “We couldn’t go the park or theaters anymore, so we stayed in each other’s apartments. We played dress up. We pretended to be American movie stars. We played games. We ate too much candy. We drove our mothers crazy.”
While they were aware Germany was becoming hostile to Jews, Grebenschikoff said neither initially grasped the severity. But then came Nov. 9, 1938, Crystal Night, also called the Night of Broken Glass.
“We sat on our apartment floor during Crystal Night,” Grebenschikoff said. “We turned off the lights and my parents told us not to make a sound so that our neighbors who were not Jewish would not denounce us.”
Wahrenberg’s father was among those arrested. He was released weeks later, but Grebenschikoff does not know why. The Wahrenbergs were certain he would be arrested again, she said, and the Grebenschikoffs knew it was only a matter of time before all Jewish residents were targeted.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Grebenschikoff said. “My dad began looking for a way out.”
He bribed a shipping company for tickets from Italy to Shanghai, China, which, as a city accepting immigrants without papers, would become home to 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
“We were told to say goodbye to relatives,” Grebenschikoff said. “Everybody was crying.”
In 1997, her Holocaust testimony was among the 55,000 collected by the Steven Spielberg-founded USC Shoah Foundation. During that interview, as she did during most public speaking engagements, Grebenschikoff mentioned her best friend, saying she hoped Wahrenberg would see the footage and reach out.
Still, Grebenschikoff admitted, she figured Wahrenberg had not escaped Germany and died during the war.
It turned out that Wahrenberg, who changed her first name to Ana, fled to Chile months after the Grebenschikoff escaped. Still residing in Chile, Wahrenberg also spoke publicly about growing up as a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany.
In November, Wahrenberg spoke at a Zoom conference about the Night of Broken Glass.
Ita Gordon, an indexer with the Shaoh Foundation, was also a part of the conference. Wanting to learn more about Wahrenberg, Gordon searched the foundation archives for a testimony. She could not find one, but did come upon Grebenschikoff ’s mention.
“What followed Ita’s work was a series of phone calls and correspondence between USC Shoah Foundation and The Florida Holocaust Museum, where Betty is active, and the Museo Interactivo Judio de Chile, where Ana Maria has long been involved in a range of activities.,” The Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg wrote in a statement.
After eight decades, they had found each other.