They were taken to Trieste and imprisoned at the Risiera di San Sabba, the only Nazi concentration camp in Italy with a crematorium, and a way station of sorts for Jewish deportees. From there, they were forced onto a cattle car.
After a days-long trip, the train came to a stop, and the locked doors opened. Andra’s first memory of Auschwitz, she told the students, was the jump down. To a little girl, the ground seemed so far away.
Beating the odds of survival
“It’s better with the snow,” Tatiana said as she trudged across the ice shortly after arriving in Poland. “Certain things even seem beautiful.”
At the Judenrampe, the “Jewish platform” where deportees were unloaded before Nazis built the now-iconic train tracks directly into the camp, Andra looked at the frozen ground as she recalled the scene in 1944 — the soldiers barking in a language she didn’t understand and herding the masses like animals. Mira and her daughters, Gisella and Sergio were ordered in one direction, Nonna Rosa in the other. Like many elderly deportees, she immediately perished.
By surviving that first selection, Andra and Tatiana had already exceeded their life expectancy at Auschwitz. “The fact that these children survived at all is extraordinary luck,” said Patricia Heberer, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the author of “Children During the Holocaust.”
Andra and Tatiana believe they were spared because they were mistaken for twins, who were prized by the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele for medical experiments. Among the copious records kept by the Germans at Auschwitz, there is a list of twins, Tatiana and Andra have been told, on which their names appear. They do not know why their cousin Sergio went with them, and not to the gas chamber.
Mira held her girls tightly as they began a long walk away from the platform — a path that the students followed — to the brick building known as the sauna. All these years later, Andra and Tatiana can point to where they all undressed and where their mother’s hair was shorn.
Then came the tattoos. Mira went first, as if to find out what her children would suffer, and became No. 76482. Then Andra, No. 76483, followed by Tatiana, No. 76484. Neither remembers the process hurting.
“Now it is part of me, as if I were born with it,” Tatiana said, referring to her number. It is proof, she said, that “I won, and they didn’t.”
Mira went to the women’s quarters and to work. The girls, along with Sergio, went to the children’s barracks. When they separated, Mira had the “marvelous intuition,” as Tatiana said, to remind her daughters not to forget their names. If they did, she realized in a flash of maternal instinct, how would she possibly find them after the war? She instructed the girls to wish each other good night, every night, by name.