Story by Elizabeth Shemaria, Bay Area Chapter, Communications Specialist
Introduction by Jon Dillon, National Headquarters, Casework and Outreach Associate
The turmoil of conflict often separates loved ones. When this separation happens internationally, Red Cross Red Crescent societies around the globe can help them reconnect. While this service is reserved for reconnecting family members, the Red Cross understands that varying lived experiences and cultural heritages can alter the definition of family. Therefore, on this International Day of Friendship, it is important to highlight the familial bonds friends can form, and the humanitarian work of the Restoring Family Links program to help ease the pain of not knowing the whereabouts and wellbeing of a loved one.
When Gunter Ullmann fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai almost 75 years ago, he thought it was the last time he would see his childhood friend Elfriede Hubner.
With help from the Red Cross, Ullmann, a 64-year San Francisco resident and Hubner, who lives in Schwabisch Hall, a little more than one hour’s drive from where the two grew up, recently had a chance to share a lifetime worth of memories and meet each other’s extended families in Germany.
“Today is the day,” said Gunter on Mother’s Day 2012, with his passport peeking out of his shirt pocket as he waited at the airport with his wife Isle and their son Peter, to board a flight to Frankfurt. “It is happening. We’ll get to know each other again, and see what the future will bring.”
The Ullmann’s carried with them photos and stories to share with Hubner and her family, including photos of Gunter’s brother Walter who died last year and was also friends with Hubner.
The reunion, which has been 10 years in the making, started with a tracing request from Hubner’s son-in-law, George Finley, at a Massachusetts Red Cross office.
Ullmann’s family, who is Jewish, fled Mannheim, Germany in 1938 for Shanghai (one of the few places which allowed immigrants without visas at the time) when he was 14. Ullmann says his father took the family’s savings and bought one-way boat passages after “Kristallnacht,” the Night of Broken Glass, a series of attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria on November 9 and 10, 1938.
In 1948, the family then moved from Shanghai to San Francisco, where Ullmann worked as a mechanic, restaurant owner, and, for the last 15 years, as a volunteer tour guide at the San Francisco visitor information center in Union Square.
Hubner’s family, who is Christian, stayed in the apartment building where the two families lived and Hubner later moved to Schwabisch Hall.
The friends and Gunter’s brother, Walter, were first connected by phone and email in 2008 with help from the Red Cross San Francisco office and San Francisco Bay Area volunteer, Craig Knudsen.
The friends often talked about meeting, but family illnesses, distance and life circumstances made it difficult to meet. When Walter died last year, the friends decided it was time.
Although nearly 75 years had passed, Gunter Ullmann and Elfriede Hubner “caught up right where they left off,” wrote Peter Ullmann, in his account of the first day of the visit.
The childhood friends and their families took walks, ate meals together, visited museums, met with the mayor in the town where they grew up and shared memories.
“It gives you a good feeling to have a positive thing like this happen to you in old age,” said Gunter Ullmann before leaving for Germany. “It’s really tremendous what the Red Cross has done.”
For more on the reunion between Gunter Ullmann and Elfriede Hubner, watch the following video: