Nonna Bannister carried a secret almost to her Tennessee grave: the diaries she had kept as a young girl experiencing Nazi atrocities while learning compassion and love for her fellow human beings. Nonna’s writings tell the remarkable tale of how a Russian girl, born into a family that had known wealth and privileges, was exposed to the concentration camps and learned the value of human life and the importance of forgiveness.
“How this story came to be written is a big part of the drama. The only World War II survivor of her wealthy Russian, devout Christian family, Nonna Lisowskaya came to the U.S. in 1950, married Henry Bannister, and never spoke about her Holocaust experience –until a few years before her death in 2004, when she revealed her diaries, originally written in six languages on paper scraps that she had kept in a pillow strapped to her body throughout the war. Now those diaries, in her English translation, tell her story of fleeing Stalinist Russia, not knowing what was waiting in Hitler’s Germany, where she saw her mother murdered in the camps, escaped a massacre of Jews shot into a pit, was nursed by Catholic nuns, and much more.” ~Hazel Rochman, March 1, 2009 (Booklist)
“Nonna Bannister recounts her personal travails in the first person singular, in a real time account, with touching simplicity and directness – yet with brutal honesty. Bannister rejects any temptation to embroider or hype the raw brutality, tragedies and stark deprivations that were experienced and endured by her family and herself. Bannister remembers the young Nonna as a victim who refuses to be a victim. This absence of any semblance of self pity is made more ringing by her evident joy in recounting through her diaries her fond early memories of family life, and by her faithfulness, when confronted with unspeakable horrors, in practicing a philosophy for life learned at her father’s knee – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Perhaps it is the influence of these twin philosophies – joy and forgiveness – that make this such a special and unique book. Nonna and her family were subjected to many of the worst excesses of the Bolsheviks under Stalinism, were caught in the vice of war between Russia and Germany, and “escaped” into the hell of Nazism. This book gives first person account of the travails of that passage and does so in that manner that shows the reader the real face of true humility. This is a book for the ages.” ~ Dr. Edward J. Coyne, Sr., Samford University Nonna
Tyndale House Publishers announces the publication of The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister written by Nonna Bannister with Denise George and Carolyn Tomlin (April 2009, Tyndale House), the haunting eyewitness account of Nonna Lisowskaja Bannister, a remarkable Russian girl who saw and survived unspeakable evils during World War II.
1. The Secret Holocaust Diaries is written by Nonna although she passed away in 2004. Did she write the book before she died?
Yes, she slipped up into the attic each night, translated her diaries (from several different languages), and recorded them in English onto yellow legal pads. Much later, after she told her husband, Henry, about her incredible past, she showed him the stacks of yellow legal pads on which she had translated her diaries and recorded her thoughts about her past, and he typed them up into a manuscript.
2. Would Nonna have liked to see her book published before she died?
Nonna translated her diary into English and her husband, Henry, typed the manuscript. However, she requested the diary not be published until at least 2 or 3 years after she died. Henry honored this request. (She died in 2004.) The story was very painful and reminded her of the suffering her family endured. When she came to America in 1950 she was overwhelmed by her new life. She was determined to make a new life for herself and to give her husband and children a happy home.
3. Nonna came from a privileged family. Are there any interesting stories of people her ancestors knew?
Nonna’s family “ran with” the upper crust in the Ukraine and Russia. Her mother and father were educated in Russia’s great cultural city, St. Petersburg. Nonna’s grandmother and grandfather knew the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and Nonna kept a postcard sent by him (shortly before his death) to her grandfather, Jakob, for his birthday (dated 1913?). Jakob was killed during the Revolution while trying to help Russian families escape.
Nonna writes in her diary of living on the “Chekov Lane” in Taganrog, the street where Russian writer Anton Chekov (1860-1904) had once lived.
The family also visited often the boy Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (nicknamed “Sasha”) and his mother, Taissia. She and Nonna’s mother, Anna, were good friends. They enjoyed giving concerts and playing the violin and piano. Nonna writes of eating ice cream with her mother and Taissia, and spending the night in the Solzhenitsyn home during a thunderstorm. Alexander was older that Nonna, studying at the university.
4. Many people assume most of the people killed by the Nazis were Jewish. Was Nonna’s family Jewish?
Although it is estimated that approximately 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, other nationalities experienced suffering and death, also. Nonna’s family was Russian and owned seven grain mills and homes in southern Russia and the Ukraine. Her father, Yevgeny, and his family were from Warsaw, Poland, which included a large population of Jews. Due to border restrictions, Nonna never met her father’s family. Yevgeny never told Nonna and her brother, Anatoly, if his family was Jewish. If the children didn’t know, they could not let it slip. The admission of being Jewish could have meant deportation or certain death. There is speculation, but no one is certain.
5. Nonna saved many documents from her time at Nazi camps; what are these artifacts?
In a small ticking pillow she kept tied around her waist, she kept many one inch square photos of her family and friends in the Ukraine. She also kept her small childhood diary. On tiny slips of paper, she wrote her experiences (in diary form) and also kept these in the little pillow.
Later she kept all these in a small trunk, which she painted bright green.
6. When Nonna finally revealed her secret, was her family shocked?
Henry knew there was something about her past that she didn’t want to talk about. Being a patient man, he never pressed her to speak about this secret. As they grew older, he asked her to write down some things about her family-so their children would know their heritage. After months of secretly translating her diary (written in several different languages) she took him to the attic, open the little green trunk and showed him her family’s photos and the yellow legal pages of the translated diary. Henry was astonished at what he saw.
7. Why did Nonna keep her devastating secret for so many years?
Nonna kept her secret past from her family/friends because she had, at last, found such happiness with her husband, Henry, and her three children. She didn’t want to express her past pain–she didn’t want it to interrupt the family’s happiness and cast a shadow of despair over them.
8. The diaries themselves were written in several languages and some were on scraps of paper. How did she go about transcribing them?
Nonna learned English after she came to America in 1950. This became her primary language. She realized they should be transcribed in English so Henry could type the pages. He spent several years typing these notes after work and on weekends.
The miniature black/white photos, the diaries, the notes from the prison camp, her mother’s letters from the concentration camps, and other documents were organized and put into chapters for a book-one she hoped would be published after her death.
9. What can people of Christian faith or Jewish faith/descent take from The Secret Holocaust Diaries?
That grave injustice exists–Nonna learned that from the Red Army (who killed many of her family members) and Hitler’s army (who also killed many of her family members and imprisoned her in a labor camp). But that God’s love and forgiveness for those who hurt us are stronger than even Hitler’s evil and injustice. Nonna came out of the whole experience with her heart still filled with love. She experienced none of the bitterness and hatred that some Jewish Holocaust survivors have held onto. She was able to marry, raise children, and bring them much joy and happiness through her own love and through introducing them to God’s love.
10. Why did Nonna feel it was so important to share her story?
The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister is a true story of a young Russian girl whose family was caught up in the Russian Revolution and in World War II. In spite of the injustice inflicted on her family and millions of others, it is a story of love and forgiveness. Nonna wanted others to know the horrors that occurred during the Hitler and Stalin era so that it might never happen again.
Nonna felt compelled to tell her story because she was an eyewitness to many dramatic events, and she was the only survivor of her entire family.
Late in life, Nonna unlocked her trunk filled with memories from World War II first for her husband, and now for the rest of the world. Nonna’s story is one of suffering, torture, and death-but also of incredible acts of kindness that show the ultimate triumph of faith and love over despair and evil. The Secret Holocaust Diaries is in part a tragedy, yet ultimately it’s an unforgettable true story about forgiveness, courage, and hope.
APRIL 21: INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 as an annual international day of commemoration to honor the victims of the Nazi era. This date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Every member nation of the U.N. has an obligation to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and develop educational programs as part of the resolve to help prevent future acts of genocide. The U.N. resolution rejects denial of the Holocaust, and condemns discrimination and violence based on religion or ethnicity. To commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Museum hosts a candle-lighting ceremony attended by the Washington, D.C. diplomatic community, Holocaust survivors, and the general public.