Last week I randomly picked a thin memoir from my waist-high stack of books that are waiting to be read. It was Holocaust survivor Hana Greenfield’s story -- a compilation of essays titled Fragments of Memory.
I read the short 110 pages in one sitting. While imprisoned in Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp not far from Prague, Hana worked in the kitchen. It was a prized job in a situation where everyone was being systematically starved. One day while spooning watery soup from a large barrel, she heard an old man whisper in front of her, “Miss, please give me from the bottom, I am so hungry.” His hope was that there would be a potato or a turnip in his serving. Hana looked up, taken aback by the quiet voice, and saw her grandfather. She intentionally didn’t make any sign of recognition; she didn’t want him to feel ashamed.
Later that day, Hana stole two boiled potatoes from the kitchen, a feat that could have cost her her life. She hid them in her brassiere and ran to her grandfather’s barrack. “I handed my grandfather the two boiled potatoes I had stolen,” she wrote. “He took out a pocket knife, peeled the potatoes, cut them in slices and shared the portions with me. We looked at each other with a smile and felt like conspirators. That was a moment of happiness we shared amidst the sad realities of our daily life in the ghetto.”
This story struck me. Hana was a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and yet this story of connection lived at the forefront of her memory. Hana’s example of finding a moment of emotional refuge in the midst of a dire and inhumane situation felt deeply important. While the upheaval of the year 2020 certainly can not be compared to what took place during the Holocaust, there are themes in survivors’ lived experiences that are helpful and hopeful in these difficult times. Stories like Hana’s exemplify resilience in the face of adversity.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us were consumed with the notion of separation. We were obsessed with the idea of being alone. And when exploring the oral histories that live in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, there was no shortage of stories about aloneness, loneliness and hiding.
Now, many (many) months into this fight against Covid-19, it feels like we are rewriting our own story. It is like our obsession with separation has been viewed in a new lens, a wider one. The stories we are now drawn to are those of connections, even if experienced by individuals who are thousands of miles apart. And, once again, when digging into the Visual History Archive for stories of the past that exemplify this idea, there is no shortage of testimonies to lean on.
Here is just one of those connection stories that USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive brought to us this year.
In the days after the U.S. presidential election, while everyone was compulsively refreshing the map of the United States, USC Shoah Foundation’s cataloguer and indexer Ita Gordon stumbled upon a story. She had been invited to join a webinar hosted by The Latin American Network for the Teaching of the Shoah (a group that was formed in response to the coronavirus). A survivor named Ana María Wahrenberg was telling her story of how her family fled Berlin for South America after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom.
As Ita listened, her mind automatically did what it had been trained to do through years of meticulous listening to testimony -- index. The process of indexing had Ita noting every family member, location and keyword that Ana María mentioned. That is what Ita has been doing day in and day out with USC Shoah Foundation for nearly 25 years. Her attention to detail and great knowledge of history makes it possible for people like myself (and you) to not only use keywords to search the over 55,000 testimonies in the Institute's archive, but also find the exact minute where a topic of interest is discussed.
When the webinar was over, Ita couldn’t let Ana María’s story go. So, she checked if Ana María had a testimony in the Visual History Archive. She didn’t. Ita was patient though and paired her years of research experience with a relentless hunch. Knowing that Ana María originally came from Germany, Ita began trying different spellings of her name and finally found a lead when she searched the name Annemarie Wahrenberg. The name was connected to the testimony of Holocaust survivor Betty Grebenschikoff.
Betty was also born in Berlin. Her family also escaped after Kristallnacht. But, unlike Ana María’s family who eventually settled in Chile, Betty’s family found refuge in Shanghai, where she stayed for over a decade before emigrating to the U.S. Both families had rare Holocaust stories in that their nuclear families remained intact throughout the war.
Ita listened intently to all four hours of Betty’s testimony. Annemarie’s name was mentioned early on in the interview. “I had one particular girlfriend whose name I always mention, can I mention it here?,” Betty asks the interviewer. “Her name was Annemarie Wahrenberg and I never knew what happened to her and I’m always wondering if maybe she’s somewhere and she can hear this. She was my girlfriend when I was very young and we went to school together, and we played together and all this and when we left for China in 1939 we said good-bye to one another and it was very difficult then because we were best friends. And we were going to write to each other but we never did and I never heard from her again and I don’t know what ever happened to her. […] She probably died in the war but I’m not sure.”
From the Visual History Archive, Ita went to the internet. She began writing her contacts at Museo Interactivo Judío de Chile which was the museum in Chile that organized the event where Ana María spoke. She wanted to know if Ana María was Annemarie, and if so, did she remember Betty? Was that her friend? Ita also searched the family names — past and present as Betty Grebenschikoff’s name also used to be different as a child. She was known as Ilse Kohn. Ita discovered that Betty was living in Florida and, like Ana María, also spoke publicly about her Holocaust experience (Betty most often spoke with The Florida Holocaust Museum). Both women regularly visited classrooms and wrote their own books; each was dedicated to doing their part in using their wartime experiences to raise a more peaceful next generation. Most remarkably, though, it didn’t appear that the two women knew that the other survived.
“I got so emotional,” Ita told me about when she realized these former childhood best friends may be reunited. “I mean, I didn't cry or anything, [but] what I did was stay very quiet and say to myself, ‘You may have to act, but right now, feel it.’ Because there might be a chance that two dear friends might be together [again].”
Within a couple weeks, all relevant institutions and museums partnered up, relationships with the survivor’s families were fostered and plans were made -- Ana María and Betty would reunite on Zoom.
“I could never find her. I looked for her at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and in the database I looked for her. And I mention her name every time I give a talk because I talk about the Holocaust and just nothing ever happened, you know? And I just can’t believe that she’s there. It’s so exciting.”
One week before Thanksgiving, a few dozen people from various time zones and countries, most of whom were related to Betty or Ana María, gathered online for the reunion. Everyone sat quietly with their videos off and computers muted as they witnessed Ana María and Betty reunite as friends once again.
“It was so natural for them,” said Lucas Kirschman who is one of Betty’s seven grandchildren. “They picked back up and they were talking about random stuff like no big deal… And it's almost like language could have been a barrier, but it absolutely wasn't at all. I've never heard my grandmother speak German before, ever.”
The two women talked for nearly two hours and finished the conversation by introducing all of their family members and having a champagne l’chaim—a toast to life.
“Seeing Ana María and Betty on the Zoom call, along with their prosperous, healthy and happy families, this was the ultimate triumph over hate,” another family member said.
Ana María and Betty’s reunion story is just one of countless connection stories we have witnessed happen thanks to the Visual History Archive during this very strange year of solitude. Another story came to us after 60 Minutes aired a feature about the USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony program; a former Los Angeles-area Uber Driver named Juan wrote to the Institute looking for information about a Holocaust survivor he once gave a ride to—a man named Morris Price. Juan said that he had given rides to upwards of 20,000 people over the years, but no one left an impression like Morris did. We were able to connect the two of them as well.
We have no idea what 2021 will bring. We hope Ana María and Betty will meet in person. We hope to see our colleagues in the office, to have conversations with strangers and travel to our friends and family overseas. While we don’t know when any of those realities will return to us, we do know that the stories of connection, as well as isolation, will continue to unfold. And, we look forward to exploring the survivor stories that have a home in the Visual History Archive because they teach us that even in times of great fear, anxiety and isolation can come great resilience, resistance and connection.