When escaping Nazi Germany with her family more than 80 years ago, Betty Grebenschikoff was separated from her best friend, Annemarie.
Grebenschikoff, who now lives in Florida, spent the ensuing decades searching for Annemarie, devoting a chapter to her friend in the book she wrote, “Once My Name Was Sara: A Memoir,” and mentioning her in speeches to schools, religious organizations and community groups.
“She would always say to the schoolkids, if you ever hear of Annemarie, let me know,” said Betty Grebenschikoff’s daughter, Jennifer.
Last year, Grebenschikoff’s wish came true, thanks to a Beverly Hills resident, and the story has captured international attention.
Ita Gordon, an indexer for the USC Shoah Foundation, was watching a survivor’s testimony from Chile that featured Holocaust survivor Ana María Wahrenberg.
“She was so eloquent. I was so impressed and moved by her and her testimony and how she spoke about her life as a child in Berlin prior to 1938 … I just wanted to see if I could find her in the archives of the USC Shoah Foundation. We have an incredible, rich archive of testimonies … I knew how to go looking for her,” Gordon said.
Gordon did not find Ana María, but she did find mention of Annemarie in the testimony of Betty Grebenschikoff, and given the survivors’ ages – both are now 91 – and the fact that they both came from Berlin, Gordon realized that Ana María and Annemarie might be one and the same.
“Through it all, there was a voice inside of me that kept on telling me to pursue this, pursue this, pursue this and I did,” Gordon said.
With the backing of the Shoah Foundation and Executive Director Stephen Smith, as well as Holocaust museums in Florida and Chile, Grebenschikoff and Wahrenberg were reconnected late last year, and despite the old friends not speaking for the last 82 years, their reconnection has astounded their families and each other. The two women still remember their German – fortunate, since Wahrenberg speaks Spanish in Chile, and Grebenschikoff does not know Spanish.
“My German is a little bit rusty, but she knows what I want to say and she helps me out. We have an incredible connection, it’s just an absolute miracle,” Grebenschikoff said.
Grebenschikoff and Wahrenberg speak regularly via video calls, and their reconnection has shown how similar their lives have been. Both women have made it their lives’ mission to educate others about the Holocaust, and they’ve “discussed that quite a bit,” Grebenschikoff said.
They also talk about their shared childhood experiences and their current families.
“It’s amazing that after all these years we have an instant connection and agree on so many things,” Grebenschikoff said.
That connection has grabbed attention around the country and world, with national media outlets, including “NBC Nightly News” and in the Washington Post, covering the story in the U.S., and newspapers “all over the world,” including Wahrenberg’s Chile, have picked up the story, too, Grebenschikoff said.
“It’s been incredible, very busy but it’s all good,” Grebenschikoff said. “I’m happy that the story is coming out because it’s a good story. Once in a while, a good thing can happen out of something like the Holocaust.”
The press coverage also gives the survivors a chance to reach new audiences with their stories of surviving such an atrocity and for talking about racism and hate crimes in general.
“Not only the hate crimes, but the Asian Americans and the general intolerance is very difficult to see, which is why we’re so out there, virtually anyhow, telling people to be nice to one another and accept each other as a human being,” Grebenschikoff said.
Due to the pandemic, the women have not yet reunited in person, though they plan to do so in Miami this September for Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Labor Day, Sept. 6.
“I know, one way or the other, she is going to be in Ana Maria’s arms come Labor Day week, all because of Ita Gordon,” Jennifer Grebenschikoff said.
Gordon, who said she’s “lucky” to have a job working with Holocaust survivors and helping ensure their testimonies are recorded for future generations, said this story is especially fulfilling for her.
“Luckily, we can have a reunion with both of them alive and well. That’s a gift. That’s the gift that we have with them,” Gordon said.
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