On Saturday, Global News reported on the untold story of a friendship interrupted: two little girls growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany — the best of friends — who found themselves separated by the horrors of war.
More than 80 years later and in the midst of a pandemic, they discovered the other had survived, was still alive, and that their lives mirrored each other in so many ways.
But this is the story of how Global News learned of the amazing reunion between Betty Grebenschikoff and Ana Maria Wahrenberg.
It started after the violent mob Jan. 6, 2021, descended on the U.S. Capitol, in a tweet about the police officer credited with saving lives by turning himself into a decoy, Eugene Goodman.
I’m keenly aware of how much vile hatred is propagated on Twitter, now more than ever. Despite that, I have always remained hopeful about the connections, education and even friendships that it can foster. In the wake of the violence, I thought it was more important than ever to keep my contributions optimistic.
It’s why, when the identity of the Capitol Police officer was revealed, I was amazed to learn that his name — Eugene Goodman — described his actions. And not just the Goodman, as “Eugene” means noble. “Charles Dickens himself couldn’t have given him a better name.”
Days passed. Then, one night, one of my replies to a tweet (on a different subject entirely) got hundreds of likes. But only one, in particular, stood out to me — from a Charles J Dickens, a.k.a @itsdickenstime.
Hmm. Dickens? No bio. Photo was a faded shot of a cute little boy. Location was Florida. Feed was thoughtful, mainly about the news in Washington. Nothing inflammatory.
I figured, this is likely an English literature teacher, a professor perhaps, but at the very least, a Charles Dickens fan. Who knows? Maybe he even loves the musical Oliver! like I do
I followed him, he followed me back. It’s late at night, but our direct messages begin, first from me conveying empathy for what America was going through. At this point, it was still only one week since the violence, and the shock and pain are still fresh.
I sent him my tweet about Eugene Goodman, thinking this well-read fellow would probably appreciate the reference. And he does, but quickly replied with something else: “So I’m really glad you contacted me….it just so happens I have a story tip I’ve been trying to tell other journalists on here for the past month but obviously I understand everything is so chaotic.”
And so, at around 2 am ET on Jan. 14, my new Twitter friend messages me what may be the most understated pitch of all time: “Ok so basically: Two Holocaust survivors, friends in childhood, separated in their adolescence (both 8 or 9), never saw each other again, have been reunited via Zoom and the Shoah Foundation.”
The next day, “Charlie” tells me the background to the amazing story of 91-year-old Betty Grebenschikoff.
I listen to stories about her volunteer work at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., — which, by the way — she drove herself to and from, regularly, until the pandemic hit.
Charlie tells me about Betty’s humour and her wit. He, though not Jewish, is kvelling at her talent for sharing stories, not only in her autobiography but her rock star-status when she would speak to kids who visit the Holocaust museum. She would talk about living through Kristallnacht — the “night of broken glass” in 1938, when Nazis violently torched and raided Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. Betty would also talk about the very last time she saw her best friend in the world, Annemarie, when they were both nine-year-old Jewish girls in Berlin, and Betty was known as Ilse Kohn.
“Charlie,” it turns out, worked at the Holocaust Museum in St. Pete’s until he was furloughed this summer. He tells me how someone at the Shoah Foundation was listening to a South American woman speaking during a Zoom conference on Kristallnacht … and started connecting the dots. Annemarie is now Ana Maria, a 91-year-old Chilean who drives herself to the Jewish Interactive Museum in Santiago where she, too, volunteers to share her experience in the Holocaust. And guess what, she’s a firecracker too.
The mission of the Shoah Foundation is to document Holocaust survivors’ stories. Reconnecting survivors, the fewer and fewer who remain, isn’t what they do. It’s impossible to express how extraordinarily and mathematically rare it is that two best friends, without papers, with different names, could be reconnected 82 years after their families somehow managed to flee the Nazis.
And at the end of the call, I ask “Charlie” about himself — it’s not clear to me that he’s an academic. But I’m not willing to give up on my theory just yet, and I ask him what his real name is. A bit perplexed, he replied, “it’s … Charles.” And then, he chuckles. “Yeah, Charles Dickens is my actual name.”
So much of this story is about our basic identities: our names. Had Charles Dickens been named otherwise, had Eugene Goodman been named otherwise, I’d have never heard this story. And I realized that if these women still had their original names, they may not have lost 82 years in their friendship. And one cannot help but reflect, with great sadness, on all the millions of others with Jewish names who never lived long enough to search for a lost friend.
In the following days, I talked with Betty. We talked about how it was Beshert — destiny — how we met. And very quickly, I realized that Charles undersold me on everything about her. She is instantly likeable, optimistic, wise and funny. And at 91, she is still sharp as a tack. Betty is the kind of person whom you at once realize you are lucky to meet, and whom you never forget.
I’m extraordinarily grateful to Betty and Ana Maria for allowing us to share their journey with the world.
After Mike and Barry returned to Canada, Betty wrote me:
“I want to thank you for being so interested in my story and of course in the reunion with my friend Ana Maria. I still find it hard to believe that we actually found each other again after 82 years. It is truly a miracle. It is one of many stories of the Holocaust that actually has a happy ending and that is most rare.”
Leslie Stojsic is the executive producer of The New Reality, airing Saturday nights on Global TV and online. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieStojsic
See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online.