Two sisters return to the camp 70 years after they were first brought there, sharing memories of snowball fights, feelings of guilt and the need to never forget.
AUSCHWITZ — In a low voice, Tatiana Bucci asks, “What do you think of the Jewish kids who get tattoos of the number that was assigned to their grandparents?”
I shake my head, not knowing what to say, but she has the answer: “I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to have it done. It’s part of my skin now, I almost don’t notice it, but for them it would be different. I don’t show it off, but I don’t hide it either, and every time I see it I think with pride that I once was just a number but have managed to stay a human being despite that.”
It’s been 70 years since the Nazis marked Tatiana Bucci’s skin. The number 76484 was tattooed on her arm as soon as she arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Her sister Andra became number 76483, and their mother — who went first to find out whether the process was painful — was 76482.
“People understand if we talk about it today and children want to listen, but when we were young it was a real taboo,” she recalls. “I’ll always remember the shame I felt one summer, when my sister and I wore dresses without sleeves and some cretins on the tram asked us if it was our telephone number.”
As we’re talking, Andra pulls up the sleeve of her sweater and, very naturally, shows me the tattoo. “Our mother brought us out to the field every day and told us over and over: ‘Always remember your names, repeat them every day — both your first and last names.’”
The girls clung to that and continued to recite them, even when they stopped speaking Italian. They forgot how to at one point in their lives because they were forced to learn Czech and then, later, English.
It was 04/04/1944, an unforgettable sequence of numbers, when Tatiana, 6, and Andra, 4, arrived at the immense camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. On that day, they lost their aunt Sonia and grandmother Rosa to the gas chambers. Their mother would have also suffered that fate had she not dressed the girls in matching grey coats.
We know today that almost 232,000 children were imprisoned here, yet no more than 50 survived it. The reason these sisters did is because they were mistaken for twins, which was ideal for Dr. Josef “angel of death” Mengele’s experiments.
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Child survivors of Auschwitz — Photo: USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography
For 50 years the story of two sisters who passed for twins and survived the largest death factory in history was private, but they began to tell their story in 1994, when historian Marcello Pezzetti learned about them by accident. After half a century of silence, they finally understood the comforting power of sharing their memories. In 1995, for the first time, they had the courage to cross the barbed wire of the camp where nine of their family members were killed.
Since then they have returned to Birkenau 23 times for commemorations, but usually it’s to accompany student groups. They still come today, at ages 76 and 74, along with other living survivors.
Taken to Auschwitz
Their father, who was not Jewish, had been missing for four years — held prisoner in South Africa by the English — and wasn’t in the country when his family was taken. On their way to the camp, the girls’ mother managed to get a note to him. It was picked up by a railwayman, who gave it to a policeman. When Giovanni Bucci returned home in the summer of 1944, he discovered that his family was no longer there.
“I remember the dogs barking, and I remember that we had to jump off a high wagon,” says Andra. “After we got the tattoos, we were separated from our mother, but in the evenings she tried to visit us. In just a few days she had totally changed her appearance, her head shaved and she was clearly shaken, but I was so scared I didn’t want to touch her.”
She continues, “Then, we didn’t see her any more. We never cried, but we thought she was dead. They had actually taken her to an ammunition factory in Germany.”
She says that the young girls were “treated like animals” and left to fend for themselves. “But, you get used to everything, and it all became normal for us,” she says. “We remember it always being cold, never a sunny day like today, and there was plenty of ice. Even though we didn’t have socks or gloves, we used to have secret snowball fights. There was always a line for food, everyone with their little dishes and spoons, just to get some of the disgusting slop.”
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Inside a barrack in Auschwitz — Photo: Bukephalos
She recalls the two of them playing amid piles of corpses, all so white. “These were the bodies of those who died in the night,” she recalls. “At dawn they were piled outside the barracks and taken away in wooden wheelbarrows. Tatiana and I always stuck together. Neither of us left the other’s sight for a single moment.”
These two sisters seem to speak with one voice, although the speaker changes intermittently. “We were lucky,” Tatiana says, “because they thought we were twins and our blokova, the Polish non-Jewish woman who was in charge of our cabin, was a petty thief arrested by the Nazis. She liked us, so gave us things to eat, and kept us away from the doctor in the white coat who took people away.”
Tatiana recalls the woman taking her aside one day and telling her that the children were going to be gathered and asked if they wanted to join their mother. “She told us we must refuse and not step forward, so we told our cousin Sergio to do the same,” Tatiana recalls. “We didn’t budge an inch, but he still stepped forward and was taken away with 19 other children. They were taken to the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg where they became guinea pigs for atrocious experiments for tuberculosis. The day he was taken away was Sept. 29, 1944 — his seventh birthday.”
When the war was ending, Tatiana says, the Germans tried to conceal the project and took the children into the cellars of a school, hanging them on butcher’s hooks along with those who took care of them. “We learned this many years later, thanks to the documents buried in the school’s garden. They died on April 20, 1945, and every year this school has a memorial and there are 20 photos hanging on the wall, and 20 bushes of white roses. Today there’s a place where you can go and say a prayer for those children.”
After the war
For the sisters, though, things took a different turn after the war ended. “I remember soldiers with different uniforms came, with a red star, and they smiled at us and gave us things to eat,” Andra remembers. “Outside on the streets there was a lot of movement and men everywhere. I was five years old at that point, and they took us to Prague to a Red Cross collection center, where we stayed for a year and nuns taught us first grade. The first day of school, the first migraine. Many more followed.”
In the spring of 1946, the children at the Red Cross were gathered, and asked who was Jewish. They raised their hands, which signified a real change for them. They were sent to Lingfield, in the south of England, to a center for orphans who survived the death camps.
“The bigger kids had to take care of the little ones,” Andra says. “We took care of Bella, who was born in Theresienstadt camp in what’s now the Czech Republic, and she became a justice for juvenile court in London.”
They were under the supervision of Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. “It was like we had found a family,” Andra says. “Nobody had any documents or identification, and many didn’t even know when they were born, so they chose their own dates of birth so we could celebrate their birthdays. ‘Adoptive’ aunts and uncles came weekly and brought us presents. It was the most carefree time in our lives. They gave us our childhoods back.”
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Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna — Photo: Library of Congress
They thought that this was going to be how their lives would be. But their parents weren’t at peace and continued to search for them. One day, the center director Alice Goldberg showed the girls a photo of their parents on their wedding day. It was the same one they said goodnight to for years while their father was imprisoned.
They left London’s Victoria Station and, after a change at Calais, reached Tiburtina Station in Rome, where they were reunited with their parents. There was a big crowd of people waiting for them, many of them Jews who wanted to hear news of their own missing children. None of the children who were taken from Rome’s Jewish Ghetto returned, though for days parents came with photos desperately seeking answers. There was no good news for any of them.
A difficult homecoming
“It was difficult to go back and live with our parents again,” Andra recalls. “It was like they were strangers. After she died, we found out that our mother suffered a lot. The two of us continued to speak in Czech when we didn’t want anyone to understand us. We never really talked about what happened with Dad. One evening, years later, on TV there was a film about the Nazis and the three of us got upset and began to cry. Dad got up, turned off the TV, and we went to bed without saying a word.”
When their mother’s friends in Trieste saw her for the first after she returned, the women recall, they asked, “Where have you been, Mira?” Their mother told her friends about the horrors of being dragged away from home, but they interrupted her in disbelief and she eventually stopped bringing it up. She died in 1987, their father two years before that.
“I waited until my children were older to tell them about it,” says Tatiana, who has lived in Brussels since she was married. “They were in high school, and they knew, but I didn’t have the courage to tell them too much.”
Andra says she often feels guilty that she is alive but that their cousin Sergio isn’t. She says this as she plays with her lucky charm, a small purse that Anna Freud left her when she died. She opens it to show me, and Freud’s glasses are still there with a handkerchief.
“I talked about it with my husband,” she says. “He said that problems can be solved when you talk about them. He died when he was 45, and now when I go home to Padua from trips to the camp, I have this baggage of memories and anguish that weighs on me, and I don’t know who to turn to and talk about it with. So, I decided I’m going to move to America. My two daughters live in Sacramento, in California, with their families, so I’ll go there after the summer.”
She says that one of her grandsons had a school assignment on the lives of his grandparents, and that he chose to do an experiment. “For a week, he wore the same shirt and pants, never changing them,” Andra says. “He never had a shower, walked everywhere — no bus or bike — and gave up all technology. For lunch and dinner, he only ate broth with a piece of bread. He lost five kilograms, and when he was finished he told me, ‘I know that it’s nothing compared to what you went through, but I thought of you a lot and think I understand a little bit.’ That was one of the most moving gestures I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
It’s time to go, and Tatiana and Andra Bucci have packed their suitcases. But this time they have overcome the pain. Their cousin Sergio now has more than 400 new cousins, and they’ll never forget him.
The platforms at the Auschwitz-Birkenau train station are full again, but unlike 70 years ago, they’re packed with children who are free, and here to learn.