The first book I reviewed for the Star Tribune documented the life of Mildred Harnack, the only American to lead a Nazi-resistance group in Germany during World War II. Tragically, she was guillotined on Hitler's direct orders. When asked whether I'd be interested in reviewing another true story from the Holocaust, I initially hesitated, given the emotional toll of "All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days."
Fortunately, I said yes. While "Always Remember Your Name" is equally affecting, this memoir by sisters Andra and Tatiani Bucci has a hopeful ending.
"We were and are a rarity: two children who survived Birkenau." The sisters are among only about 50 children of an estimated 230,000 sent to the concentration camp whose lives didn't end there.
Not only did they survive, the two are still alive. Now in their 80s, the sisters share their experiences in schools, even traveling back to Auschwitz with groups of students, because "looking into the eyes of the young people who are listening to us, we find that hope returns, immediately."
Andra and Tatiana are not professional writers; this is not a literary masterpiece. Its strength is in their recollections, told simply in their words.
The two were born in Fiume, in what is now Croatia, but was then part of Italy. Their father was Catholic, their mother Jewish. Tatiana was 6 and Andra 4 when they, along with their mother, aunt and cousin Sergio, were arrested and sent to Birkenau, the largest part of the Auschwitz complex, on April 4, 1944.
We see the death camp through their young eyes. They remember being tattooed, "a number that will be with us our whole life," and while living in the Kinderblock barrack with other children, playing outside during the day while adults in the camp labored. Imagine, playing at Auschwitz near "pyramids of corpses" they learned to ignore.
As horrific as that image is, the most tragic memory for these two girls, who looked like twins and "stuck together like a stamp to a postcard," was losing their cousin Sergio. Photos of these three beautiful children in happier times are featured in the book.
One day, children at the camp were lined up and asked whether they wanted to "go and see Mamma." Tati and Andra had been warned by a guard to say no. But Sergio was so eager to see his mother, he said yes, and was one of 20 children sent to Hamburg, where they were tortured by a Nazi medical officer and hanged.
After the camp was liberated in 1945, the two ended up at an orphanage outside London, where they "recovered our childhood." And in yet another incredible twist of fate, the two were summoned to the director's office and told their parents were alive and had tracked them down.
"Always Remember Your Name" was first published three years ago in Italian, and Ann Goldstein has now translated their memoir into English to reach a wider audience. To preserve their stories, I hope it does.
Laura McCallum is an editor at the Star Tribune.
Always Remember Your Name
By: Andra and Tatiana Bucci, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
Publisher: Astra House, 171 pages, $25.