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Tatiana Bucci, left, and her sister Andra Bucci are seen in a photo taken after they were freed.

Sisters continue to share Holocaust story

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.

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.

Andra and Tatiana returned to Auschwitz 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.

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, about 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.

Sharing the story

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.

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. 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.

At the Judenrampe, the “Jewish platform” where deportees were unloaded before Nazis built the now-iconic train tracks directly into the camp, Andra 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.

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.

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. She instructed the girls to wish each other good night, every night, by name.

A warning

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.

Andra and Tatiana have forgotten the faces of most other children in their barracks. But they remember the face of their cousin Sergio.

He was taken away one day, and decades later, they learned that Sergio and 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.

Reconnected

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.

The next real home Andra and Tatiana knew, after their liberation in 1945, was in England. They found themselves at a 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.”

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.

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.

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