Holocaust survivors: ‘We never dreamed of hugging our mother again’
Sisters Tatiana and Andra were only six and four when they were sent with their families to the notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Somehow the girls survived, but they were convinced that their mother had perished. Only a miracle could bring them together, as they say Kate Thompson
By right, sisters Tatiana and Andra Bucci should not be alive today. They were among 230,000 children under the age of ten deported by the Nazis from occupied Europe to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp – of whom only 50 survived. An estimated 1.5 million children perished in the Holocaust.
Tatiana and Andra were seven and five years old when they were liberated by Russian soldiers in January 1945, after spending nine months in the notorious camp. Andra is now 82 and lives in California, and her older sister Tatiana, 84, lives in Brussels.
Their story of their ordeal, revealed in a new book Always remember your Last name, is as powerful as it is heartbreaking. But an act of great humanity penetrates the darkness of this story. After their release from the camp, the girls were brought to Surrey as part of a rehabilitation program for child survivors of the Holocaust. Moving from a concentration camp to a beautiful estate in the heart of the English countryside was such a profound transition that the sisters describe it as a “rebirth in paradise”.
In March 1944, the sisters were deported from their hometown of Fiume in what was then northern Italy and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau with their Jewish seamstress mother Mira, 36, their grandmother Nonna Rosa Perlow, 61 years, their aunt Sonia, 42, aunt Gisella, 40, and their cousin Sergio, six. Their Catholic father, Giovanni Bucci, a 36-year-old merchant navy sailor, was held in a POW camp near Johannesburg in South Africa, after being captured in 1940.
At Auschwitz, the sisters were separated from their mother and placed in the Kinderblock barracks for children. They don’t know how but five times their mother managed to visit them outside their block. “Mom took huge risks to see us, and each time she hugged and kissed us, then urged us to repeat our names. “Always remember your names,” she pleaded, so that if we survived until liberation, we would remember our true identity,” Tatiana said.
After November 1944, the visits ceased. “We were both convinced that she was dead,” Andra explains. With their mother gone, it became harder to hold on to their roots. Memories darken and fade; their release on January 27, 1945 comes down to a series of snapshots. A smiling Russian soldier handing them a piece of salami, a long journey to a dismal orphanage in Prague, and a haunting plea: always remember your name.
But then, on a warm spring evening in April 1946, the memories of the sisters turned from gray to dazzling multicolored. “We were taken on a military plane,” recalls Tatiana. “We didn’t question it – it was just another journey to an unknown fate. But then we came to England.
Unbeknownst to the girls, they had been brought to England, along with 730 other children who had survived the Holocaust, as part of a rehabilitation program organized for the Home Office by the Committee for Jewish Refugees. It was felt that Britain should be seen to be taking action to help, and so the Committee for the Care of Concentration Camp Children was formed.
“We were led down a tree-lined avenue at the end of which was a beautiful country house,” Andra says, smiling at the memory. “I immediately felt at ease.” The sisters had arrived at Weir Courtney, also known as Lingfield House, in Surrey, owned by Sir Benjamin Dragage, an English Jew. He had kept a small wing of the building for his family and given away the rest for free as a home for surviving children from all over Europe.
This amazing 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. Between 1945 and 1957, these women took in hundreds of children and helped them regain their stolen childhood by creating a family and stimulating environment.
“As soon as we arrived, we were taken to a room full of toys and our hearts skipped a beat,” Andra says. “There was a huge dollhouse, a rocking horse and toy cars, all for us.” The food was fresh and plentiful, and the girls slept on soft, clean beds in a lovely wallpapered bedroom that overlooked not barbed wire and barracks, but a garden full of spring flowers.
“Placed on our blankets was a soft, puffy thing that we had never seen before,” Andra explains. “It was a hot water bottle. The things that ordinary people considered normal were an extraordinary discovery for us. So extraordinary, in fact, that we asked for it to be removed.
At first, it was difficult for the children to adjust to their new life. Routines have been established to establish safety. The girls learned English and Hebrew, as well as practical skills such as using a knife and fork, how to fold clothes, how to knit, how to wash and brush their hands. teeth – daily activities that other children took for granted. Children from Lingfield House were also encouraged to look after chickens and rabbits and helped plant vegetables and pick fruit in the park’s orchard.
Weekends were all about fun, and the girls, alongside Lingfield’s 30 other children, rediscovered their sense of joy. “We celebrated Jewish holidays, 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 movie theater.’ Surprise visits came from the owner of the estate, Sir Benjamin, a “nice man” whom the sisters remember, bringing them apples. On an exciting occasion, they traveled to the local town of Lingfield to greet and cheer on Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother.
However, the sisters, who were then nine and seven years old, still lacked something vital: the love of a mother. “We told Alice, Anna and Martha that our parents were dead and they showered us with love and affection. Martha became an adoptive mother, giving us hugs,” Andra says. Tatiana befriended 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 it at the time, but I felt abandoned,” admits Andra. Perhaps Anna Freud sensed it when she took Andra under her wing and taught the young girl how to use a loom.
Andra’s difficulties in adapting were reflected in the behavior of the other children, many of whom had also witnessed unspeakable atrocities. Some hid food for fear of being caught, others wet their beds or cried themselves to sleep. It was an integral part of life at Lingfield. But the gentle and constant care of Alice, Anna and Martha allowed the children to become exactly that again – children.
After Tatiana and Andra had spent eight months at Lingfield, in December 1946, they were told some startling news. ‘Alice told us: ‘Your mum and dad are alive,” recalls Tatiana. “We were euphoric.”
Mira had been transferred from Birkenau in late November 1944 and moved through various sub-camps, before managing to escape in the chaos of the collapse of the Third Reich in early 1945. Thanks to the Red Cross, she discovered that his daughters were living in England. Their father had been released from the POW camp.
“We became the center of attention at Lingfield because the hope of finding your parents was the dream of every child there,” says Andra.
On a cold December day, dressed in identical blue coats, the sisters boarded a train for Dover. But the reunion with their mother on a train platform in Rome was tense. “We found ourselves in the middle of a large crowd of people calling our names and waving pictures of children.” The news had spread in the Jewish community of Rome, which saw in the arrival of the sisters the possibility of having news of their loved ones. “We were so upset that we burst into tears,” recalls Tatiana. “Mom hugged and kissed us and did her best to reassure us.”
From there, they went to Naples and then, in January 1947, to Trieste, where their parents, already reunited, had decided to settle. It was there that they laid eyes on the father they had last seen six years before. “We had waited a long time to hug him,” says Tatiana. “He was such a good man that from then on we were able to cherish and love him.”
And so the reunited family settled into a new life in the ruins of post-war Europe. Of 13 of their relatives who had been arrested and imprisoned, only four have returned; the sisters were particularly affected by the murder of their cousin Sergio.
Their mother was determined not to dwell on the past and spoke about her experiences with just one close friend. “Like so many other deportees, she was not believed when she tried to tell people what had happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau, so she stopped talking about it,” says Andra.
“We didn’t talk about Auschwitz either, only about Lingfield. At school, we were called ‘girls who had been in the camp’, but in general no one asked us about our past,” says Tatiana. But the reminders of those dark days were impossible to forget. “People were asking if the numbers inked on our arms were phone numbers and we said yes. What else could we say?
Their “strong and vigilant” mother took her story to the grave, dying in 1987, aged 79, two years after their father died. But for Andra and Tatiana, the need to remember won out over the desire to forget.
They both became prolific speakers on the Holocaust, telling their stories to future generations.
In 1996, they confronted their past and returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau. “It was a powerful and difficult experience,” says Tatiana. “As mothers and grandmothers ourselves, we came to understand better how our mother must have felt – her courage, her determination and her love for us.”
These exceptional women are committed to sharing their story with young people and see it as a commitment to the future because, as they say, “memory is a thin thread, always in danger of breaking”.
One memory that will always remain bright for the sisters is their golden time in the sleepy village of Lingfield in Surrey and the sanctuary that helped them regain their stolen childhood.
Always Remember Your Name: The Children of Auschwitz by Andra and Tatiana Bucci will be published by Bonnier Books on January 20, price £12.99*