Red Cross Reconnects Childhood Friends Torn Apart by Holocaust
By Caitlin Cobb, American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter
April 9, 2010
The backbone of the Restoring Family Links program are the volunteers within local chapters who work directly with family members to help locate missing relatives. You can help the American Red Cross continue this important work by supporting the Bay Area Chapter.
In 1939, Walter Ullmann and his family fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Ullmann left behind a dear childhood friend, Elfriede Haas. One day last year, Ullmann received an unexpected phone call – it was Haas, making contact after 70 years of separation.
In attempt to reconnect with the Jewish families who had been her childhood neighbors, Haas had gotten in touch with the American Red Cross through a friend. That Red Cross contact initiated a tracing request that was ultimately sent to the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter headquarters in San Francisco, where Ullmann and his family now live.
“After 70 years it is wonderful to hear your voice again,” claimed an emotional Ullmann when he finally received Haas’s call.
The two long-lost friends continued to catch up about where their lives have led them after the tragic years following the holocaust in Germany. Ullmann admits that he never expected to hear from his friend again. “We left Germany in 1939, but since Elfriede’s family was not Jewish, she had no reason to leave. She stayed behind,” he said.
Ullmann and his family travelled to Geneva, and eventually to Shanghai, the only country they could enter without documentation. They did not enter the United States until 1948. While the lives of Haas and Ullmann are both radically different from when they knew each other, the familiarity of an old friend provided for an emotional reunion.
Ullmann and Haas aren’t alone. The chaos and confusion that accompany war and disaster can separate families when they need each other most. When this happens, the Red Cross joins the search across international borders.
Restoring Family Links is a program of the American Red Cross that helps families and friends reconnect after months or years of separation. Caseworkers at local chapters around the United States, including at the Bay Area Chapter, handle inquiries and work directly with family members to locate missing relatives by working with our partners – the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations in nearly every country around the world. This past year, the American Red Cross helped reconnect more than 860 families – bridging years of separation to renew critical links between new communities in the United States and their families around the world.
Bay Area volunteer Craig Knudsen knows firsthand how important and touching these reunions can be. He is one of the volunteers who was instrumental in reconnecting Ullmann and Haas.
“It is so important to provide this service to people who do want to locate loved ones,” Knudsen said. “Finding a friend or family member can make a big difference in a person’s life.”
For people who have lost everything due to war or a disaster, news and the hope of reunification with family and friends can be just as life-sustaining as food, shelter and medical care. Even far away and many years after the devastation, Red Cross volunteers in the Bay Area are helping people to reconnect, gain closure and heal through the Restoring Family Links program.