Sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci remember playing around piles of skeletal corpses in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sometimes they saw prisoners go from barrack to barrack collecting the bodies of those who had died in the night, swinging them onto wooden carts. They recollect the mud, always feeling cold and the constant smell of burning.
They were just four and six when they were deported to Auschwitz in April 1944 with their mother, Mira, and other family members. The sight and sense of omnipresent death was jusst a fact of life at the time.
In their young minds, there was an acceptance of their situation: being Jewish, they thought, meant living and dying in Birkenau. However, their intermittent fear turned to terror when they witnessed an adult in a white coat come and take away children from their kinderblock, (children’s barracks), never to return, likely to have been the victims of Dr Mengele’s experiments.
The reasons for their own survival are uncertain. They speculate they may have avoided immediate death because they were mistaken for twins, a subject of particular interest to Mengele.
But as the decades have passed, the sisters attribute it, in part, to their mother’s strength and resolve. Now they have written a powerful memoir, Always Remember Your Name — the title referring to her insistence that, during her occasional evening visits to their barracks, they had to identify theselves.
The sisters with their mother
“Mamma wanted us to keep attached to our real life,” they write. “The one outside the camp.”
“We were probably too young to understand what was happening, other than it was bad,” says Andra Bucci, 82, via Zoom, from Tatiana’s home in Brussels. “That lack of understanding is probably what saved us. Knowing the truth only came after the war.”
More than 230,000 young children were deported to Auschwitz and the majority were murdered upon arrival. Out of those that survived, 50 were under 10 years old. The sisters want the book to highlight the experiences of child survivors, stories which have not been given much prominence over the years and prove that their memories are as important as those of adults.
Written in a direct narrative style, they bear witness from an adult perspective, but their memories of the death camp are seen through a child’s eyes, two little girls who, for the entire time, “stuck to each other like a stamp to a postcard.”
They still have a very strong bond, says Tatiana, 84, no doubt a result of those traumatic early years. but at the same time she is keen to stress they are quite different as people and describes herself as more like their mother.
Speaking at Auschwitz-Birkenau
I’m speaking to the two of them through an interpreter and what is strikingly evident is how, in person, as on the page, the sisters often speak in the plural but as one single voice, and that there is a seamless interchange from one to the other.
The Bucci sisters were born in Fiume, a town in northern Italy, now part of Croatia, the daughters of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, a ship’s cook who was often away at sea. From what they can remember, those pre-war years were spent living with extended family and their mother, a seamstress.
For the sisters, recalling the fate of their six-year-old cousin, Sergio, who arrived at the camp with them, remains painful. In November 1944, the girls had been forewarned by the blockova (guard) in their barracks that the children were to be assembled and asked if they wanted to see their mothers, but that they must refuse the offer.
They duly informed Sergio but the next day when the children were lined up and the question was posed, he put himself forward. They then saw him leave. Many years later, they discovered he was one of 20 children sent to Hamburg for the purpose of pseudoscientific experiments, and subsequently murdered by hanging in a school.
Andra admits that Sergio’s death, in particular, contributes to a sense of guilt for having survived.
“I often think of those children who died, more as I’ve got older.” Tatiana, too, thinks about the children who did not survive but says she does not feel regret for what happened.
“It wasn’t our fault or our choice. I feel it’s important to accept what life has decided: that we survived and that we are the ones to tell Sergio’s story.”
Tatiana and Andra remained in Auschwitz until liberation in January 1945. They eventually travelled to England in 1946, via a stay in an orphanage in Czechoslovakia, to Lingfield House in Surrey, a renowned home for child survivors of the Holocaust led by Alice Goldberger. Here they “began to live again.”
The girls at nursery school
It was also whilst at Lingfield that they learnt that their mother was alive, and that their aunt and grandmother had been gassed on arrival. She had been transferred from Auschwitz to work in Germany in a munitions factory, and, after the war, had returned to Italy.
She found her husband, who had been held as a prisoner of war in South Africa from 1940 until 1945 and, with the help of the Red Cross, the family were finally reunited in Italy in December 1946.
They settled in Trieste and in general the sisters say they had a normal, happy childhood. Whenever the two of them talked together about the past, it was always about Lingfield, explains Tatiana.
“It was where everything started again for us.” Their mother never asked what had happened to them in Auschwitz, nor she did she divulge about her own experiences.
“She had a rule of silence, which we followed and respected. She wanted to try and forget and, at the time, we didn’t miss knowing what she’d been through, although now we feel there’s a need to understand and know more. We think that, perhaps, one of the reasons why she didn’t talk was because she felt responsible.”
Do they feel her approach was the right one? “We’re often told that to get over something, we need to talk about it, to free ourselves from the burden,” replies Andra, “but for our mother, it was the exact opposite. We saw her as a happy person. The silence enabled her to go on. So it was probably right for her and it was probably right for us, too, to allow us to carry on living.”
The Buccis gave their first testimony in 1995 to Shoah historian Marcello Pezzetti, and the following year returned to Auschwitz for the first time. They have since gone back dozens of times with student groups, school children and historians.
The sisters in Fiume
“It’s always very, very painful. When I see the camp from a distance, my heart tightens and the feeling remains for a few hours after I’ve left. It takes Andra a few days. Remembering and retelling our past experiences is never easy. Even as we’re talking now,” Tatiana confesses.
“Similarly, going back to Auschwitz in 1996 was a difficult decision. Yet the journey was actually less traumatic than we anticipated because it was in April. It was hot, there were butterflies and there was grass on the ground. But subsequent trips, taken during different seasons and especially when it rains, are harrowing.”
Despite the personal emotional toll these visits take, the Buccis believe they are of vital importance. “To ensure what happened in the past doesn’t happen again,” says Andra.
“We try to tell young people to think with their own minds and not to give in to peer pressure; that we are all the same and we shouldn’t discriminate on grounds of religion or colour and it is better to be alone than follow a group that has the wrong ideals.”
By sharing their testimony, the sisters have chosen to make their past part of their present. In recognition of their decision to keep their memories alive, and those of Sergio and the other children who died in Hamburg, they have just been awarded an Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany — an honorary title given for special achievements — granted by the President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier .
“It means a lot to us,” says Tatiana. “Especially as it comes from Germany.”
The sisters’ relationship toward Judaism differs. Mira had taken the decision to have the three of them baptised, in response to the growing rise of antisemitism under Mussolini. Once Italy fell under German occupation in 1943, she hoped it would protect them from deportation.
Today, Tatiana is an atheist, but at the same time, she feels Jewish. It is an identity largely defined by what they’ve been through, whereas Andra is earning about Jewish culture and philosophy through her daughter, who is taking classes.
“I feel a little regretful that it was not passed on to me,” she says, “But it was probably a consequence of the war and this attempt to forget.”
Andra and Tatiana's parents on their wedding day
Despite the pain and suffering, they both feel grateful and lucky. Overall, it has been a good life, says Andra. Tatiana lives in Belgium with her husband and two sons, and Andra, now widowed, lives in California near her two daughters. They have four grandchildren between them.
But, as the numbers of survivors diminish, are they concerned the Shoah will be forgotten?
“It will still be talked about, like any event from the past,” thinks Tatiana.
“Recorded interviews and the use of technology means that memories are being kept alive and passed on. The next generation might even know more than people now.”
Always Remember Your Name by Andra and Tatiana Bucci (Manilla Press), translated by Ann Goldstein