‘We never dreamed we’d hug our mother again’
Sisters Tatiana and Andra were just six and four when they were sent with their family to the notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Somehow the girls survived, but they were convinced their mother had perished. Only a miracle could reunite them, as they tell Kate Thompson
Andra, drie, and Tatiana, vyf, with their mother Mira in 1943
My rights, sisters Tatiana and Andra Bucci should not be alive today. They were two of the 230,000 children under the age of ten deported by the Nazis from occupied Europe to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau – of whom just 50 oorleef het. 'N Geskatte 1.5 million children perished in the Holocaust.
Tatiana and Andra were seven and five when they were liberated by Russian soldiers in January 1945, having spent nine months in the notorious camp. Andra is now 82 and living in California, and her elder sister Tatiana, 84, lives in Brussels.
Their account of their ordeal, as revealed in a new book Always Remember Your Name, is as powerful as it is heartbreaking. But an act of great humanity penetrates the darkness of this story. After their liberation from the camp, the girls were brought to Surrey as part of a scheme to rehabilitate child survivors of the Holocaust. Relocating from a concentration camp to a beautiful estate deep in the English countryside was a transition so profound, the sisters describe it as being ‘reborn in paradise’.
In Maart 1944, the sisters were deported from their hometown of Fiume in what was then Northern Italy and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with their Jewish seamstress mother Mira, 36, their grandmother Nonna Rosa Perlow, 61, their Aunt Sonia, 42, Aunt Gisella, 40, and their six-year-old cousin Sergio. Their Catholic father, Giovanni Bucci, a 36-year-old merchant navy sailor, was held in a prisoner-of-war camp near Johannesburg in South Africa, having been captured in 1940.
At Auschwitz, the sisters were separated from their mother and placed in the kinderblock barrack for children. They don’t know how but on five occasions their mother managed to visit them outside their block. ‘Mamma ran tremendous risks to see us, and each time she would hug and kiss us, then urge us to repeat our names. “Always remember your names,” she pleaded, so that if we survived until liberation, we would remember our true identities,’ Tatiana says.
Their parents Mira and Giovanni on their wedding day, 5 Desember, 1935
After November 1944, the visits stopped. ‘We were both convinced she had died,’ says Andra. With their mother gone, it became harder to hold on to their roots. Memories grow cloudy and fade; their liberation on 27 Januarie 1945 is reduced to a series of snapshots. A smiling Russian soldier handing them a piece of salami, a long journey to a bleak Prague orphanage and a haunting plea: always remember your name.
Maar dan, on a warm spring evening in April 1946, the sisters’ memories are transformed from grey, to dazzling multicolour. ‘We were taken on a military plane,’ Tatiana recalls. ‘We didn’t question it – it was just another journey towards an unknown fate. But then we arrived in England.’
The sisters in Italy, 1943, met (van links) vlug deur gewapende polisie nadat hulle met kajuitpersoneel gestry het toe hulle geweier het dat die kinders se oppasser by hulle in besigheidsklas aansluit, cousin Sergio, Aunt Paola, Nonna Rosa and Aunt Gisella.
Unbeknown to the girls, they had been brought to England, saam met 730 other children who had survived the Holocaust, as part of a rehabilitation scheme organised for the Home Office by the Jewish Refugees Committee. It was felt that Britain should be seen to be taking action to help, and so the Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps was formed.
‘We were driven down a tree-lined avenue at the end of which was a beautiful country house,’ says Andra, smiling at the memory. ‘I immediately felt comfortable.’ The sisters had arrived at Weir Courtney, also known as Lingfield House, in Surrey, owned by Sir Benjamin Drage, an English Jew. He had kept a small wing of the building for his family and given the rest over rent-free as a home for child survivors from all over Europe.
This astonishing act of philanthropy involved many people, but the three who stood out to the sisters were Alice Goldberger, Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund Freud) and Martha Weindling Friedmann. Tussen 1945 en 1957, these women took in hundreds of children and helped them to recover their stolen childhoods by creating a homely and nurturing environment.
‘As soon as we got there we were taken to a room full of toys and our hearts skipped a beat,’ says Andra. ‘There was an enormous doll’s house, a rocking horse and toy cars, all for us.’ Food was fresh and plentiful and the girls slept in soft, clean beds, in a charming wallpapered room that looked out, not over barbed wire and barracks, but a garden filled with spring flowers.
‘Placed on our blankets was a soft, inflated thing we’d never seen before,’ says Andra. ‘It was a hot-water bottle. Things that ordinary people considered normal were, for us, an extraordinary discovery. So extraordinary, in werklikheid, we asked to have it taken away.’
Eers, it was difficult for the children to adjust to their new life. Routines were established to instill security. The girls were taught English and Hebrew, alongside practical skills such as how to use a knife and fork, how to fold clothes, knit, wash and clean their teeth – everyday activities that other children took for granted. The children at Lingfield House were also encouraged to care for chickens and rabbits, and helped to plant vegetables and pick fruit from the orchard in the grounds.
Weekends were all about fun, and the girls, langs die 30 other children at Lingfield, had their sense of joy rekindled. ‘We celebrated Jewish festivals, birthdays and played games in the garden. Every Saturday we put on a play on a small stage set up in front of the outdoor swimming pool, or went to the beach or the zoo,’ says Andra. ‘We even went to London to watch Pinocchio at the cinema.’ Surprise visits came from estate owner Sir Benjamin, a ‘kind man’ the sisters recall, bringing them apples. On one excitable occasion they visited the local town of Lingfield to wave and cheer Queen Elizabeth, die toekomstige koninginmoeder.
A letter from the Jewish Refugees Committee, which had organised their stay in Surrey
Egter, the sisters, who were by now aged nine and seven, were still missing something vital – a mother’s love. ‘We told Alice, Anna and Martha that our parents were dead and they wrapped us up in love and affection. Martha became an adoptive mother, giving us cuddles,’ says Andra. Tatiana became good friends with a girl named Miriam Stern from Czechoslovakia, who had been forced to hide in an attic for the duration of the war. ‘I didn’t say so at the time, but I felt abandoned,’ admits Andra. Perhaps Anna Freud sensed this as she took Andra under her wing and taught the girl how to use a loom for weaving.
Andra’s difficulties adjusting were mirrored in the behaviour of the other children, many of whom had also witnessed unspeakable atrocities. Some would hide food for fear of it being taken, others would bed-wet or cry themselves to sleep. It was part and parcel of life at Lingfield. But Alice, Anna and Martha’s gentle and consistent care allowed the children to be just that – children – again.
After Tatiana and Andra had been at Lingfield for eight months, in Desember 1946, they were told some astonishing news. ‘Alice said to us, ”Your mamma and papa are alive,”’ recalls Tatiana. ‘We were euphoric.’
Mira had been transferred from Birkenau in late November 1944 and moved around various sub-camps, before managing to escape in the chaos of the Third Reich’s collapse in early 1945. Thanks to the Red Cross, she discovered her daughters were living in England. Their father had been freed from the prisoner-of-war camp. ‘We became the centre of attention at Lingfield because the hope of finding one’s parents was the dream of all the children there,’ says Andra.
On a cold December day, dressed in identical blue coats, the sisters boarded a train to Dover. But the reunion with their mother on a station platform in Rome was fraught. ‘We found ourselves in the middle of a great crowd of people calling our names and waving photos of children.’ Word had spread through Rome’s Jewish community, who saw in the sisters’ arrival the possibility of news of their own loved ones. ‘We were so overwhelmed we burst into tears,’ Tatiana recalls. ‘Mamma hugged and kissed us and did her best to reassure us.’
From there they travelled to Naples then, in Januarie 1947, to Trieste, where their parents, already reunited, had decided to settle. It was here that they laid eyes on the father they had last seen six years previously. ‘We had waited a long time to hug him,’ says Tatiana. ‘He was such a kind-hearted man that, from that moment on, we were able to cherish and love him.’
And so the reunited family settled down to a new life in the ruins of postwar Europe. Uit 13 of their relatives who had been arrested and imprisoned, just four returned; the sisters were particularly affected by the murder of their cousin Sergio.
The sisters in Trieste, somer 1947, having been reunited with their parents.
Their mother was determined not to dwell on the past and spoke about her experiences with only one close friend. ‘Like so many other deportees, she wasn’t believed when she tried to tell people what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau, so she stopped talking about it,’ says Andra.
‘We didn’t speak about Auschwitz to each other either, only about Lingfield. By die skool, we were known as “the girls who’d been in the camp” but in general no one asked about our past,’ says Tatiana. But the reminders of those dark days were impossible to forget. ‘People would ask if the numbers inked on our arms were telephone numbers and we said yes. What else could we say?’
Their ‘strong and vigilant’ mother took her story to the grave, dying in 1987, bejaardes 79, two years after the death of their father. But for Andra and Tatiana, the need to remember overcame the desire to forget. They have both become prolific speakers on the Holocaust, telling their story for future generations to learn from.
In 1996 they confronted their pasts and returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau. ‘It was a powerful and difficult experience,’ says Tatiana. ‘As mothers and grandmothers ourselves, we understood better what our mother must have felt – her courage, determination and love for us.’
These exceptional women are dedicated to sharing their story with young people and see it as a commitment to the future because, soos hulle sê, ‘Memory is a slender thread, always in danger of snapping.’
One memory that will always burn bright for the sisters is their golden time in the sleepy Surrey village of Lingfield and the sanctuary which helped them to recover their stolen childhoods.
Always Remember Your Name: The Children of Auschwitz by Andra and Tatiana Bucci will be published by Bonnier Books on 20 Januarie, [object Window]. To order a copy for £11.04 until 3 Februarie, gaan na mailshop.co.uk/books of bel 020 3176 2937. Gratis aflewering in Brittanje op bestellings van meer as £ 20.