“I have . . . seen dozens of survivors in my life,” Gozzini went on, but none like Andra and Tatiana. “They are the best,” he said, “to transmit the feeling of . . . pain . . . and, at the same time, the sense of the life, which starts again.”
Life as young girls
Aboard the train, Andra and Tatiana could have noted that its sleeper cars bore no resemblance to cattle cars. They could have pointed out that the students knew their destination or that they were dressed for the frigid Polish winter. But the sisters prefer not to lecture.
Soft-spoken to the point of occasional inaudibility, they are witnesses, not speechmakers. When they visit elementary schools, children sometimes want to know who tucked them in at bedtime at Auschwitz. The older students who participate in the Train of Remembrance tend more toward cosmic questions, such as whether Andra and Tatiana believe in God. It is a matter they have not fully resolved.
They are burdened, but not destroyed by their past. Sometimes, they are the first to say, it is difficult to see them with their gray hair and deep wrinkles and imagine them as they once were: little girls, one as petite as the other, neither with any knowledge of evil much greater than chickenpox.
Chickenpox — this was the reason Andra was sleeping in the grown-up bedone night in late March 1944. She had come down with the childhood illness, she told the students, and her mother decided to indulge her. Tatiana, practically inseparable from her younger sister, slept in the same room.
The girls lived in Fiume, a city then located in northern Italy and today part of Croatia. Their father, Giovanni Bucci, a mariner long away at sea, was Catholic. Their mother, Mira Perlow, was Jewish and had fled persecution in Russia with her parents.
They didn’t have much, but Mira gave her girls a proper and happy childhood. In the morning, she enforced a strict bathing regimen. No daughter of hers would be poorly groomed. Before they went to bed, the girls wished their seafaring father good night by kissing his image in their parents’ wedding picture.
In the early years of the war, Italian Jews were relatively safe. Despite its pact with Germany and its own anti-Semitic “racial laws,” Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government generally did not cooperate with Nazi plans for the deportation or murder of Jews. But that modest security ended in the autumn of 1943, as Italy switched sides in the war following the collapse of Mussolini’s government.
With the Allies still making their way up the spine of Italy from the south, the northern and central parts of the country fell under German occupation. Large-scale roundups and deportations of Italian Jews ensued, and in early 1944, an informant turned in Mira’s family. The girls awoke that March night to find their grandmother, Nonna Rosa, begging a man in a long black coat to take her and leave the children.