Sisters live to tell their Holocaust story

Video: Andra and Tatiana Bucci were only 4 and 6 years old when they were taken to Auschwitz, the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. Almost seven decades later, they return to the site time and time again to teach Italian students about unspeakable loss, and the power of remembrance.

Andra and Tatiana Bucci did not cry at Auschwitz.

Or if they did, they have forgotten. They do not recall suffering from hunger, although surely they did, or missing their mother, who arrived with them at the concentration camp and then one day disappeared. They do remember what she looked like the last time they saw her at Auschwitz. Bald and emaciated, she frightened them. Andra and Tatiana were only 4 and 6 years old.

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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.

The five-day round-trip journey is like stepping into “an alien world,” said Giovanni Gozzini, a history professor at the University of Siena and an academic adviser who took part in the trip. “Fear, pain, they don’t know it,” he said, speaking of a generation of students who have never experienced war. “They don’t live it.”

They don’t live it, that is, until they meet Andra and Tatiana.

“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.

“I have a crystal clear image,” Tatiana recalled in a speech before the hundreds of participants during the trip, “of our grandmother on her knees . . . forced to humiliate herself before a soldier.”

As she and Andra continued their account, the auditorium was silent. The Nazis arrested everyone in the house — including Nonna Rosa, Mira, Andra and Tatiana, their 6-year-old cousin Sergio and his mother, Mira’s sister Gisella.

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.

And so they did. It was the first of two acts of obedience that would be their salvation.

Occasionally, and probably at great risk, Mira made her way to the children’s barracks to visit the girls. In time, her visits abruptly stopped.

“We told ourselves, ‘Mama is dead,’ ” Tatiana recalled, the students listening in rapt attention. The girls matter-of-factly concluded that Mira had ended up in one of the piles of corpses, and that this was all in the natural order of the world. Their indifference to a loss they were too young to comprehend, the sisters confess, is one of the memories that burdens them the most.

Standing still

In the absence of their mother, Tatiana, as Andra’s older sister, claimed the role of protector. Through trial and error, they decided that in bunks with gaps between the rough wooden slats, Andra, who wet the bed, would sleep on the bottom. (After meeting Andra, one student gave her the silver bracelet off her wrist — a gift, she said, from one younger sister to another.)

Andra and Tatiana have forgotten the faces of most other children in their barracks. But they remember the face of their cousin Sergio, whose story they told through tears.

One day, the girls received a visit from the blokova, a female prisoner who oversaw the children’s barracks. She favored them and had occasionally brought them extra food, once even some extra clothing. Years later, Tatiana broke down when she realized that her sweater had undoubtedly come from a murdered child.

The sisters remember that the blokova gave them a warning. A man would come to the children’s barracks and announce that whoever wanted to see his or her mother should come forward. The woman insisted: The girls must not move.

It came to pass one day exactly as the blokova had said. Andra and Tatiana, in the second great act of obedience that saved them, stood still.

“Inside, they were grown-ups, not little ones,” said Pezzetti, the Italian scholar. They knew, he said, that they could not delude themselves into thinking that their mother was waiting for them.

The girls had passed the blokova’s warning on to Sergio. But Sergio, an only child, could not resist. He went away with a group of 10 girls and 10 boys. Andra and Tatiana never saw him again.

Decades later, they learned that Sergio and the other children had been taken to Germany, where they were infected with tuberculosis for a Nazi medical experiment. In an effort to conceal the brutalization of 20 human guinea pigs, Nazis hanged the children in the basement of a school in Hamburg less than a month before the war ended.

“I ask myself,” Andra said, “ ‘Why did I come back and he didn’t?’ ”

She knows, she said, that she was just a little girl. But the question — from her gut and from her heart, she said — still haunts her.

On to ‘the land of toys’

So much of what the students experience at Auschwitz is unforgettable: the camp’s unfathomable vastness; the slicing wind that overpowers every sensation except cold; the splintered wooden bunks; the mountains of suitcases that once held their owners’ most treasured belongings; and, of course, the gas chambers and crematoriums.

As the students walked past the barracks at Birkenau and the museums at Auschwitz, many had tears in their eyes or streaming down their faces, red from the cold.

They do not have the opportunity to see the children’s barracks where the sisters lived. Those were lost to the passage of time. Sometimes, Andra and Tatiana say, they still miss them.

The next real home they knew, after their liberation in 1945, was in England. They found themselves at a loving, welcoming center for displaced and presumably orphaned children, called Lingfield. It was, Tatiana, said, “the land of toys . . . to us, it seemed like a fairy tale.”

In England, the girls began the long process of adjusting to normal life, a life where grown-ups were not murderers and food did not have to be guarded. Meanwhile, Mira — unbeknownst to her daughters — had not died at Auschwitz. She had been transferred to another camp, survived, returned to Italy and was reunited with the girls’ father, who had been a prisoner of war in Africa. Gisella, too, had survived.

Together, the two mothers set about looking for Tatiana, Andra and Sergio. With help from the Red Cross and others, Mira located her daughters — who had not forgotten their names — in England. Neither had they forgotten their parents. The girls remembered them from the photo they kissed good night so many times before the war.

And so it was that in December 1946, Andra and Tatiana came home. The girls were the only children from Lingfield to be reunited with their families.

The Bucci family settled in Trieste, where Andra and Tatiana enjoyed what they describe as an entirely normal, happy life. Mira never asked them about what had happened at Auschwitz or told them much about what happened to her.

“Each person respected the other’s silence,” Andra said.

After the war, just as before, Mira gave her daughters in devotion what she lacked in money. She managed to make the typical Triestine crepes even when she didn’t have enough eggs or milk. And somehow, she found the spare change to take her girls to the opera.

Tatiana, who now lives in Belgium with her husband, has two sons. Andra, now widowed, has two daughters who live in California. Mira died in 1987 at 79, and Gisella died a few years later. She never accepted Sergio’s fate, and until the end of her life, she believed that her son might one day come home.

For Gisella, as the title of the book about the family says, it was better not to know.

‘I don’t want to leave’

“It doesn’t get easier,” Andra said of remembering and retelling. “It gets harder because the older I get, the clearer my memory becomes.” And yet, she said, it is better to remember than to not.

Besides, Tatiana said, “our efforts are repaid.”

“Students told me that now they come back to Italy different than they were when we parted from Florence a couple of days ago,” said Camilla Brunelli, the director of the Museum of Deportation outside Florence and an organizer of the trip. “We are very lucky because we have two incredible survivors with us.”

On the ride back from Poland, students waited in line at least the length of a train car to talk to Andra and Tatiana. Before their turns came, they climbed on seats to see the sisters better. Many asked them to sign their books and keepsake posters. When one young woman stood up to return to her seat, she looked at Andra and Tatiana and said, “I don’t want to leave.”

“It was a very important experience for me,” said another, Filomena Montalto, during a moment of reflection in the tiny compartment she shared with her classmates. “It will change my life.”

Several hours north of Florence, the train stopped in Andra’s home town of Padua to let the sisters off. It idled for a few minutes in the station, giving the women time to say goodbye. They walked along the train, touching their palms to the students’ hands on the other side of the train windows.

The sisters walked home to Andra’s apartment, where they would spend a few days together shopping and drinking coffee before moving on to the next classroom or town hall where they would tell their story again.

There are photos of Lingfield displayed throughout Andra’s home. On her dresser sits her parents’ wedding picture. Near the front door is a picture of Andra and Tatiana with Sergio squeezed in between them, a relic of the last months before their arrest. Another photo shows the girls shortly after their return, without him. The girls are smiling, one as beautiful as the other. They look almost like twins.

Andra, who last year competed in a half-marathon and this year will run in another, and Tatiana, who hikes near her vacation home in the Alps, show no signs of weariness. They have found beauty in the world — their grandchildren, the mountains, the pleasures of going to the cafe, the opera.

In Andra’s living room, there is a table covered in potted white orchids, another bit of beauty. Once, as a visitor watched Andra water her plants, she noticed that one had died. “There is,” Andra remarked, “a beginning and an end to everything.”

Emily Langer is a staff writer at The Washington Post and first traveled to Auschwitz with the Bucci sisters during a Fulbright fellowship in 2011. Ellen Belcher, her mother, is the former editorial page editor of the Dayton Daily News in Ohio.

 
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