Best friends … again: Girls separated in Nazi Germany reunite after 76 years
|Follow j. on||and|
When Holocaust survivor Renée Duering told her life story to an oral historian in 2008, she made sure to include a message to her long-lost childhood friend:
“I have not seen or heard from Margot since 1934,” Renée said. “If you are alive, Margot, and somehow you read this, I would like to find you.”
The plea was tantamount to a message in a bottle. After 75 years, what were the odds that Margot would still be alive even if she had survived the Holocaust? That she would actually see Renée’s 23-page online history? That the two women would be healthy enough to reunite?
Yet last week, in an emotion-packed moment at San Francisco International Airport, the long-lost childhood friends reunited — after an odds-defying Internet hookup, after 7½ decades apart and after 88-year-old Margot traveled all the way from South America.
“That first moment, I was very happy when I saw her,” said Renée, 89. “It felt so good. She came and sat next to me in the car, and we embraced.”
Renée Duering (who lives in Daly City) and Margot Slodzina (a longtime resident of Caracas, Venezuela) originally met one another in 1933 in Cologne, Germany, as young members of the Jewish girl scouts.
They became fast friends. They learned about Zionism and Jewish history, and also how to tie knots and start campfires. They went on scout retreats together. They had sleepovers.
But their sweet friendship met its demise as Hitler grew more powerful in Germany. In 1934, Margot’s father was arrested for no reason other than that he was Jewish. He spent six weeks in jail. Germany no longer felt safe, and Margot’s family moved to Madrid, Spain.
That year would be the last time the best friends would see one another.
Until last week.
“We are beginning a new life in our old age,” said Renée, sitting at her daughter’s house in Pacifica, across the table from Margot.
“It’s wonderful. I feel like we’re 17,” chimed in Margot (now Labunsky).
Time has wrinkled their skin. Their hair is gray. They are not the bubbly young girls they once were. Compared to their childhood selves, they move like snails.
Despite their similarities now and in the 1930s, their lives took vastly different paths after they went their separate ways.
Margot and her family left Germany before the Holocaust, and she went on to earn multiple degrees and work as a teacher and a lawyer. She is sophisticated, gracious and has a positive attitude.
Renée, on the other hand, lived life with a broken spirit and health problems due to her time in Auschwitz. Renée’s daughter, Nomi Harper, couldn’t help but notice that her mother turned out more negative than her childhood friend.
“It was very evident this week to see the difference in the way a person can approach the world,” Harper said.
But neither time nor experience could erase their bonds of friendship.
Margot and Renée still giggle and chitchat in German as though they were no older than when they separated.
“I didn’t know she was alive. I didn’t even dream of her being alive,” said Margot.
“We are picking up where we left off,” added Renée.
They reconnected after a distant relative of Margot’s who lives in London found Renée’s oral history in 2009. The young man alerted Margot’s grandson, Daniel Silberman, that her childhood friend was not only alive, but that she also had put out a call to find Margot.
Searching the Internet from his New York home, Silberman was able to find the home phone number for Renée’s daughter. In November, Harper came home from work to an extraordinary voice mail.
“Hi, I’m Daniel Silberman, and I’m the grandson of Margot Slodzina. Your mother was her best friend from childhood. … I’m hoping to get them in touch. Hopefully they will be able to get back in touch after not hearing from each other since 1934. I’m so excited. By the way, my grandmother lives in Venezuela.”
Harper was floored. She saved the voice mail. Replaying it makes her feel awed and overjoyed.
After several phone conversations, Margot booked the 4,000-mile trip to San Francisco with her daughter, Debora Silberman.
Silberman and Margot arrived at SFO at 6:45 p.m. March 23 after the trip from Caracas to Miami to San Francisco — one wearing a blue coat and the other a red coat in a plan devised to help Renée and her daughter identify them.
Renée sat in the back seat of her daughter’s car, eagerly awaiting their arrival.
Harper drove around the airport seven times looking for the red- and blue-coated duo. When she finally spotted them, she pulled up to the curb and Margot slid into the back seat next to Renée — the years that separated them washing away.
“For my mother and Margot to see each other again put them back in that space and time whereeach had a happy memory of childhood that they could once again grab onto,” Harper said. “It was awesome to see.”
After the initial reunion, the women had a lot of time to catch up during Margot’s stay, including a get-together over cheese and crackers, carrot cake and tea at Harper’s house in Pacifica. They looked at old black-and-white photographs, straining their memories to recall where, when and under what circumstance each photograph was taken.
“This was in front of the main post office in Madrid — this I can swear on,” Margot said, pointing to a photograph of the best friends feeding pigeons on a plaza. In the picture, both wore long sundresses and headbands in their dark hair (Renée’s was short; Margot’s was long and tied in two braids).
Upon agreeing on the time, date and place of that photo, Renée insists on labeling the back. In big block letters, she writes: main post office, Madrid, September 1934.
Their reunion is even more remarkable considering what each woman endured during World War II.
Both Renée and Margot grew up with parents who were Conservative Jews — happily integrated into German culture but still proudly Jewish.
Margot’s father owned a chain of shoe repair stores. Renée’s father was a wholesaler, buying goods, mostly for the kitchen, from factories and selling the items to stores.
In 1934, after Margot’s father was released from jail, he sold all of his shoe repair shops to store managers. He and his wife moved in the middle of the school year to Madrid, where they had an old friend.
But Margot stayed behind so she could finish the school year in Germany. In order to do that, she stayed with Renée’s family for six months, even though her own relatives lived in town.
“My parents left by their own car. I still remember that,” Margot said.
An only child, Margot couldn’t bear to be anywhere else other than with her best friend, who was like a sister to her.
“We were like twins, that’s it. We clicked. We clicked so much we were inseparable, right?” Renee asked Margot between sips of tea.
“Absolutely right,” she replied.
Eventually, Margot had to return to her parents in Madrid. But she suggested that Renée come with her and spend the summer with her family. So the girls — then 12 and 13 — shared a summer and fall in Madrid, enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company.
In October 1934, Marxist workers on Spain’s north coast rose up against the right-wing Spanish government and formed an independent socialist republic. The revolt lasted two weeks, and when Renée’s father heard about it, he became worried about his daughter’s safety — and made her come back to Germany.
The best friends had to say goodbye. They had no idea their separation would last a lifetime.
“We couldn’t write letters because Hitler was looking through all the mail if you were a Jew,” Renée said. “We had to live quietly.”
“Many friends and family lost connections because everyone was just trying to survive,” Margot said.
Margot finished high school at the German school in Madrid. In 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, the family moved to Barcelona, where it was safer. To get hired as a teacher at a Swiss school in Barcelona, Margot, then 16, lied and told the principal she was 18. She taught German and Spanish at the school until 1942, when it became clear Hitler’s power would eventually extend into Spain.
“The people without influence in Spain were wonderful to us as immigrants,” Margot recalled. “The human relationships were good; the politics were bad.”
Margot and her family bought three visas on the street for $5 total, she recalled, and boarded a ship headed to South America. They ended up getting off in Caracas.
Meanwhile, Renée was sent to Holland in the spring of 1935 to live with her aunt. Her parents gave up their house in Cologne, for safety’s sake, and moved into an apartment nearby. Her father thought it would be only a matter of time before Hitler was assassinated.
In 1938, just days before Kristallnacht, Renée’s sister and parents moved to Holland. Renée’s father had been warned by a non-uniformed Nazi that something big was about to happen.
The family made life as normal as they could in Amsterdam. They rented a big apartment on a tree-lined street. Renée became a dressmaker and often worked in people’s homes.
In May 1940, everything changed after Hitler ordered an invasion of Holland. Jews had to wear a Star of David and give up their cars, bikes, radios and businesses.
“We couldn’t take the streetcar because we were wearing the star,” Renée said in her oral history.
In 1942 she married Fritz Krämer, whom she met four years earlier. In 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz, where Krämer died. Renée’s parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Thereisenstadt and then Auschwitz, where they died.
In Auschwitz, Renée was a lab rat. Dr. Carl Clauberg, a Nazi medical doctor who was fascinated with sterilization research, experimented on her ovaries; another Nazi doctor, Dr. Hans Münch, used her for bacteriological research.
“I consider myself lucky, despite my miseries,” Renée said last week.
Renée survived and marched with other survivors from Auschwitz into Germany; she weighed only 60 pounds when she arrived in Dresden. Eventually, Renée moved to pre-state Israel, where she received some miraculous news: Despite the experiments conducted on her, she would still be able to have children.
She gave birth to her daughter, Nomi, in 1954. Mother and daughter moved to Cologne, and then to San Francisco in 1958; Nomi was not quite 4.
Renée found a job at Joseph Magnin, a high-end department store in downtown San Francisco. She also became a certified masseuse.
Meanwhile, Margot studied law in Venezuela. She got married and had two children. Like her childhood friend, Margot also had a lifelong dream of moving to Israel, and in 1972, she finally did. For 18 years, she and her family called Haifa home.
For family reasons, in 1990 they returned to Venezuela, where Margot and her children still live today. She retired last year as the principal at the Jewish day school in Caracas.
“Now we can start to enjoy each other,” Renée said. “We have the freedom to travel to each other. We can start to reminisce.”
During the five-day trip, mothers and daughters — Margot, Renée, Debora and Nomi — visited Sausalito, Union Square, Golden Gate Park and Half Moon Bay. They also went to Sunnyvale for Renée’s grandson’s 9th birthday party.
“In the time they were with us, we became family,” Harper said. “I started calling Margot ‘Mama 2.’ ”
Margot and Renée were giddy to be in each other’s company. They whispered to each other in German. They laughed easily. They affectionately held hands and hugged one another. Time could keep them apart no longer.
At the end of a March 25 photo shoot — their first picture together since 1934 — the women stood, held hands and walked down a garden path.
Together again. At last.