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Book Review for The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister
This story comes quite late in our times due to the nature of its history and the author, Nonna Bannister (born Nonna Lisowskaya). Nonna came to America when she was a grown woman after World War II in her mid twenties. She soon married her husband, Henry Bannister, and they shared a family together. Throughout fifty years of marriage, Nonna could not bring herself to speak of her struggles, and Nonna's husband didn't push her to reveal her dreadful past. He knew it was too painful for her. Her son distinctly remembers a time when a missionary visited their church with slides of incinerators from the Holocaust. Nonna ran out of the church crying, and the tears flowed all the way to their home. Afterwards, she laid in bed for more than a week in a dark depression.
Her past illuminated.
She kept her past hidden even from her family. All the documents, writing, and photographs she carefully guarded through out her life were masterfully hidden in any place you can imagine. Along with these hiding spots, Nonna went to sleep every night with a striped pillowcase that held many of her most treasured items. Finally, Henry found a gentler way into Nonna's past; he asked her to draw up a family tree for their children. In her twilight years, she laid bare to her husband everything she could of her past. Nonna would wake up in the middle of the night while Henry slept and transcribe and translate her diaries and notes onto yellow legal pads. When Henry read the story, he knew he had to turn this into a book so that more could know the tale. Nonna had only one wish, she wanted it to be published posthumously, after her death.
What makes this retelling unique.
This story has all the hallmarks of an intelligent and talented writer, probably in no small part from the editing contributors. The account is from the standpoint of a young, bright, well-off, Russian girl. She lived through the onslaught of the Russian-German border wars. A large part of the beginning of the biography involves Nonna's early life, which contains some very delightful memories. If you enjoy memoirs, you might find this section particularly enjoyable. It serves to lay a foundation for understanding the rest of the story as well as making the violent horrors all the more contrasted against such a happy childhood.
The text is interspersed with editorial comments explaining exact historical information. While some have found that this interrupts the flow of the narrative, I felt that this gave a more serious feel to the story line. Part of the reason why Nonna wanted to share the book was to make sure that people did not forget what happened.
Unlike other Holocaust diaries, one can see the particular troubles facing a Russian citizen in World War II. Not only do they face brutality by German soldiers but even their own government. They must survive in a society falling apart. Then they must endure long treks to foreign lands with complete uncertainty to how long they would be able to live.
However, if I were to sum up this entire work in one word, it would be compassion. Through out the story, even in the most horrible of situations, there exists a fundamental level of compassion by so many individuals. It really does seem like Nonna's constant faith in God did not go unrewarded. There are compassionate clergy, medical professionals, strangers, and even Nazis.
What's the recommended age level?
Of course, this is a story about one person's survival of the Holocaust, and, as such, contains material that may not be suitable for sensitive adults. The book does have unforgettably egregious moments, but I would promote this book as a lighter introduction to Holocaust first person accounts. The tone of the story is ultimately one of caring, forgiveness, and love. Recommended for the mature teenager.