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.
They had each other
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 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. It was named for the broken glass that littered German streets after Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were smashed as tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested.
“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.”
Her dad took her to the schoolyard to see Wahrenberg one final time. They promised to write letters.
Grebenschikoff’s family boarded a train for Italy on March 19, 1939, two days before her father was to appear before the Gestapo.
Grebenschikoff spent her childhood in China, married, moved to Australia and then New Jersey, raising five children. She relocated to St. Petersburg after her husband died.
No matter where she lived, Grebenschikoff actively spoke about her experiences in Germany and those she lost to the Holocaust.
“Two sets of grandparents, uncles and cousins,” she said. “I would say two dozen people of the family.”
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.
“She would talk about Anne Marie and what it meant for her to lose this friendship,” said daughter Jennifer Grebenschikoff of Tampa.
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.
They talked on Zoom in November and hope to meet in person in Miami in September.
“We speak every week or every other week,” Grebenschikoff said. “We talk about the old days. We talk about our lives now. It is incredible that we are talking. We had a connection from the start. We were laughing and talking in German while everybody else, the families on both sides, were crying. It is unbelievable.”
Jennifer Grebenschikoff hopes others are inspired by this positive story born from a dark period and playing out against the backdrop of a pandemic keeping loved ones apart.
“Never give up,” she said, “You just never know when the universe is going to come together in a way that’s going to bring you something that you hadn’t expected. Never give up. Never forget.”