Nearly seven decades after their liberation, the sisters remember perfectly the cattle car that took them away from their home in Italy. They spent 10 months at Birkenau, the most infamous camp in the Auschwitz complex, and have mostly forgotten spring, summer and fall. But they remember winter because they made snowballs, and because they nearly froze to death.
They can still recall the pebbles that became their toys and the hard wooden bunks where they slept with dozens of other children, most of whom would die. They remember the piles of corpses and the foul mud that, they later surmised, contained human ashes.
“We saw all of this,” Tatiana recalled. “Every day. And we played in the middle of it.”
Andra and Tatiana returned to Auschwitz earlier this year, as they so often do, with the Train of Remembrance, a biennial initiative created by the Tuscan regional government to teach young people about the Holocaust and Italy’s role in World War II. This winter, 560 students and 85 teachers made the journey from Florence to Poland and back.
Voices of the past
More than 230,000 children were deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, according to the camp’s museum. Most went directly to their deaths. When the Red Army liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, some 650 children and adolescents were alive. As few as 50 of them were younger than 10, said Marcello Pezzetti, an Italian scholar and director of the yet-to-be-opened Holocaust museum in Rome.
Today, Andra, 73, and Tatiana, 75, are believed to be among the youngest Holocaust survivors in the world who have memories of Auschwitz. When the two of them speak, said Pezzetti, who was one of the first scholars to interview them years ago, it is “in a single voice. . . . One remembered one thing, the other remembered another, and together they put together their story.”
In Italy, the Bucci sisters are celebrities of sorts. A decade ago, a Neapolitan journalist, Titti Marrone, wrote a book recounting their experience, “Meglio non sapere” (“Better Not to Know”). Like all Holocaust stories, it is one of unspeakable loss. But it has a most improbable joyous ending — the result of a series of chance events and choices, and their mother’s uncanny foresight.
Andra and Tatiana have spoken to schoolchildren and audiences around the country, including crowds numbering in the thousands. Having fully assumed the burden of being memory-keepers, some 20 times they have returned to Auschwitz with historians and various student groups, patiently and unforgettably testifying about human suffering, wickedness and goodness.
Ugo Caffaz, a Tuscan political official and driving force behind the Train of Remembrance since its inception more than a decade ago, said the students travel by train for a reason. The finality of the conductor’s whistle, their powerlessness to change course, the miles upon miles that speed past their cabin windows — all of it helps them imagine what it was like to be deported.