Reunion after 74 Years
They had last seen each other in 1938. Elfriede and Guenter were once neighbors and childhood friends in Mannheim. But the Nazi’s racism and anti-Semitism tore the two apart. Now, the 89-year-olds, have seen each other for the first time since then thanks to the International Tracing Service (ITS) and the American Red Cross. "I never thought this event would occur," says Elfriede Haas. "I took some valerian before this meeting so I would not cry."
There was a warm embrace as the two had their first meeting at the Hotel of Schwaebisch-Hall, the place where Elfriede lives today. "I surprised her with twelve red roses," says Guenter, who traveled with his wife and son from San Francisco. The two old friends have lots to tell each other. The gap of 74 years will be closed. "Everything worked very well. There was joy all around, there were many conversations and recollections as we spent an extraordinary nine days with each other," recounts Elfriede's daughter, Doris Finley. Elfriede also invited her children and grandchildren to join her. Some even came from Scotland to participate in this unusual reunion.
The Huebners and Ullmanns lived in the 1930s in a rented house in Mannheim. Between the two families there was a special friendship. The three children of the families - Elfriede, Guenter (both born 1922) and Walter (1924) - spent much time together, playing and laughing. With the Nazi takeover of power, the lives of Jewish families, and for the Ullmanns as well, became more difficult.
The Huebners, anti-Nazi and the only Christian family in the house, supported their Jewish neigbours. "My grandfather tried to help where he could," explains Elfriede's daughter. When the Nazi mob stormed the homes of Jewish residents on the night of the November pogroms in 1938, Elfriede's father warned his neighbors. Guenter's father then managed to escape and hide the family. When Elfriede's father was asked by the Nazis whether any Jews were left in the house, he answered no. "I think he is the reason that I am still alive," says Guenter Ullmann. After the Kristallnacht pogrom, one Jewish family after another left the neighborhood. “My grandparents received mail from their former neighbors, telling them about their safe arrival at their various foreign destinations," reports Elfriede's daughter. "But the Ullmanns never sent any note. My grandparents always worried that their friends might never have arrived."
The Ullmanns traveled in December 1938 on board a ship from Bremen to Shanghai. There they first lived in chaos - four to a room. "One night, I woke up and the whole bed was full of bugs," remembers Guenter. For a short time, they found work and moved into a small house with a garden. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the intensification of the Second World War, the living conditions became tougher. The Jews in Shanghai were crammed together in a ghetto. "It was a very difficult time. We were hungry and had no way to make money," says Guenter.
His saving grace was Ilse, whom he met in the ghetto and whom he is married to until day. In 1948, the Ullmans had to immigrate to San Francisco. Guenter worked as a cleaner and later as a mechanic until he was finally able to take over a restaurant. "Today we have three wonderful children and three grandchildren," rejoices Guenter.
After the bombing of Mannheim in September 1943, Elfriede was evacuated to the countryside in the vicinity of Schwaebisch-Hall. She married in the meantime and changed her name from Huebner to Haas. After her husband's return from war captivity in 1952, she moved with him to the city. Her friendship with the Ullmann children was one she never forgot. "Even after my grandparents had died, my mother continued to wonder about what might have happened to the Ullmann family," says her daughter. Her husband embarked on a year-long search, wanting to finally determine the fate of the Ullmanns, and reunite the old friends, if possible.
In 2008, the two families, using the ITS and the American Red Cross, got in touch for the first time. Numerous emails and phone calls were exchanged between the continents. A meeting in 2010 was scheduled. After Walter Ullmann died in the fall of 2011, it was decided that there be no further delay, so that at least Elfriede and Guenter could once again hug each other. "We caught up right where we left off," says Guenter. They talked and showed photo albums, and walked through the streets of their childhood. Even the mayor of the city of Mannheim, Peter Kunz, received them for an hour. "Unforgettable," states Elfriede's daughter.