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How these Holocaust survivors reconnected after miraculous twist of fate

Three Holocaust survivors shared a heartwarming reunion story seven decades in the making as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Courtesy Ruth Brandspiegel
/ Source: TODAY

Ruth Brandspiegel and Sasha Eisenberg formed a childhood friendship forged out of hardship when their families fled the Nazis and ended up at a displaced persons camp in Austria in 1945.

Their families eventually found safer places to start a new life after leaving the camp in 1949 — Brandspiegel in America and Eisenberg in Israel.

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Seventy-one years later, the old friends shared a heartwarming reunion last year thanks to a twist of fate involving Brandspiegel's son.

"I think the best part is to know that people survived in spite of hardship, and regained strength," Eisenberg told Al Roker on the 3rd hour of TODAY Wednesday. "And as long as there is life, there is hope, and (a chance to) build a new life or renew the memory."

Eisenberg, left, and Brandspiegel reunited Oct. 3 in New Jersey.Larry Brandspiegel via AP

The old friends shared their story as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday. It's not the only amazing reunion for Brandspiegel, either, as news of her finding Eisenberg after seven decades led to her getting in touch with another good childhood friend she met in the Austrian camp.

Brandspiegel still has vivid memories of her family fleeing Poland when she was 2 years old following the Nazis' invasion of the country in 1939. The family was traveling at night to avoid detection.

"My uncle had a big truck, and he said to my mother, 'Just pack up whatever you need for your child and we are leaving because the Nazis are right behind us,''' Brandspiegel said on the 3rd hour of TODAY.

A friendship born at the Hallein Displaced Persons Camp in Austria in the 1940s was renewed last year on the holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur, when Brandspiegel was listening on Zoom to a service being held by her son's synagogue in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

The Eisenberg and Brandspiegel families gather around the tombstone of Abraham Eisenberg at the Hallein Displaced Persons Camp in Austria in June 1948.Courtesy Ruth Brandspiegel via AP

"Being it was in this virus, and our synagogue was closed, the only one that I could listen to is to my son's (service), and the rabbi was calling out names," Brandspiegel said. "And I usually walk away from that part, but not this time. I don't know why. It's destiny. It's destiny.

"And I just listened to the whole thing, and all of a sudden, the rabbi said, 'Sasha Eisenberg.'''

Not only does Eisenberg attend the East Brunswick Jewish Center where her son Larry is a cantor, he only lives less than 60 miles away from Brandspiegel's home in Philadelphia.

Brandspiegel asked her son to call Eisenberg and ask him if he remembered Regina Puter, which was her maiden name before she changed her first name to Ruth in America and got married.

"And he said, 'Of course I do,''' Brandspiegel said. "My God. And then he called me and both of us. Both of us were crying on the phone. Seventy-one years. It felt like it just happened yesterday."

They reunited in person on Oct. 3 at a socially distanced gathering at the home of Brandspiegel's son.

"We could not hug and that was the worst thing," Brandspiegel said. "We were crying, and it was an emotional day."

"There is a word in Yiddish called 'bashert,' which means events occur without you realizing that somebody planned it, and it just happened to the benefit of both," Eisenberg said on the 3rd hour of TODAY.

That wasn't the end of the serendipity, as just a few states away in Ohio, Ira Segalewitz read about their unlikely reunion. He had also been at the same camp in Austria, where Brandspiegel was his first love.

"I said, 'Well, I just found my my first girlfriend, and I was jumping around and dancing," Segalewitz told Al on the 3rd hour of TODAY. "And it just was a remarkable day."

Segalewitz had his son contact Brandspiegel's son Larry, which led to a virtual reunion on Zoom with their children and grandchildren all taking part.

"I kept thinking a lot about her and wondering, and (we) never found each other," Segalewitz said. "Years just kept going by. That's your first love, you kind of remember that."

Segalewitz still had a memento Brandspiegel had given him during their time together at the camp.

"She gave me her handkerchief with her initial on it," he said. "And I had a special box that I had built, and I put all my treasures in that, and that's where it was for 70 years."

Brandspiegel and Segalewitz now speak at least once a week as she celebrates her renewed friendship with the two men she once knew as boys during a time of war and upheaval.

"The best part is to find my dear friends, and they become like family," Brandspiegel said. "It's unbelievable that these two friends of mine are alive, and I can talk to them."