When 23-year old Nonna Bannister arrived in the United States in 1950, she closed the door on her disturbing past. She married and raised three children and never told a soul about her experiences in Russia, the Ukraine, and Germany during the Holocaust. After 43 years of marriage, she finally introduced her husband to her past, the photographs and diaries she had miraculously saved and painstakingly transcribed into English. This book is her story.
The book, a compilation of Nonna’s diary entries and family stories, opens with her 1942 transport from the Ukraine to Poland, bound for a “labor camp” in Germany. The horror is quickly realized as fifteen year old Nonna witnesses firsthand the murderous brutality of the German soldiers toward the Jewish prisoners.
After this shocking opening, the editors return us to Nonna’s earliest childhood memories and stories about her unusually comfortable life in Russia post-Revolution, embracing family and Russian Orthodox Christian religion as the foundation of her character. Embedded in these childhood tales, Nonna becomes more aware of the outside world and dangerous influences. In the mid-1930s, the communist Soviet laws were heavily enforced, ending her Grandmother’s prosperity and Nonna remembers that everything had to be “donated” to the “collective farms.” Religion was forbidden and her parents send away her older brother to an unknown location for his safety. Nonna never saw him again. As German troops approach from one front, the family chooses not to evacuate with the retreating Soviets and hide in the cellar. They later learn that Aunts, Uncles, and cousins who did retreat were killed.
When the Germans invade in 1941, Nonna and her mother are sent to another village for safety, while her father hides; but he is discovered. The rest of the book cover Nonna’s darkest experiences. After her father’s death, she and her mother are transported to Germany. Nonna’s compassion and brief futile attempt to help a young Jewish boy leads her to be put in the middle of a massacre, where she is miraculously saved by the same boy, who dies seconds later.
She survives her experiences at the labor camp and soon her knowledge of five different languages, especially German, is recognized as a valuable asset. She and her mother are moved to a Catholic hospital where Nonna works as a clerical translator and her mother serves as a nurse’s aide. But an incident that happened on that first train ride from the Ukraine causes the Gestapo to arrest Nonna’s mother and transport her to Ravensbruck and then Flossenburg.
Nonna’s story is a valuable contribution as a primary source and witness to the Holocaust. While the editors notes interrupt the flow of the narrative, and should have been added as sidebars or footnotes, they enhance the reader’s understanding with background information. The book would benefit greatly from a map showing the various locales discussed, and despite being told that the diaries and photographs survive, there are no photographs included in the book and would be a valuable addition.
Don’t pass up reading this book because it addresses an uncomfortable topic. If this teenage girl could live through this and write it as it happened, then we, in our comfort sixty years later, can definitely read it and be witness to her life and the truth. Despite the struggle, this is a tale not only of survival, faith, and courage, but also forgiveness, strength, and hope.