Born into wealth and privileged in present-day Ukraine, Nonna Bannister is persecuted by the Soviets for being wealthy and, later, by the Nazis for being Russian. Nonna keeps a diary throughout her childhood carrying the tiny scraps of paper through the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and then to her new life in the United States in a small pouch.
This book, however, is not a reprint of her diary but rather a memoir rewritten on yellow, legal pads decades after the war and long after Nonna had established a new life in the US. The scraps of paper were lost — possibly still in that small pouch buried with Nonna at her husband’s bequest — before the book’s publication so there is no way of comparing what Nonna wrote at the time with the edited version published in this novel. As such, the book skips from past tense to present tense with a smattering of poems about her experience and notes from George and Tomlin in between creating a disjointed, confusing narrative, and the interjection of words adopted from American English highlight how edited the memoirs are. It would have been a perfect addition to a class I once took given our lengthy discussions about memories and how they change over time.
It also would have been an interesting addition given how Bannister places more emphasis on the horrific treatment her family experienced at the hands of the Soviets rather than the Nazis. In fact, except for one very poignant chapter about her mother’s attempt to rescue a Jewish baby during transport to the concentration camp where Nonna and her mother were used as slave labor, there is actually very little information about Nonna’s experience during the Holocaust. She spends much of her time discussing her happy childhood and the transition of Russia into the Soviet Union, which certainly should not be dismissed as unimportant but does make the title rather misleading.
There are so many questions left unanswered at the end of this book, mainly what happened to Nonna’s brother. Nonna insists he died during the war and it is possible that no records exist, but it is never made clear if she looked for him to the same extent she looked for her mother, whom she was separated from during their time in the concentration camps. There are also some questionable aspects of Nonna’s recollections — namely that was able to wander away from the SS guards and dogs, intermix with Jewish prisoners, and avoid execution by falling into a pit of murdered Jews — that could have possibly been confirmed by her original writings or, at the very least, by an editor knowledgeable in the Holocaust. (George is an author of Christian novels and Tomlin is a teacher who specializes in helping authors get published.)
What is added to the text by the editors is often repetitive of what Nonna has already said or will say. There are no footnotes or citations demonstrating outside research beyond the occasional Wikipedia citation, which I find abhorrent in any nonfiction novel. Bannister’s recollections could have greatly enriched a dissertation or book about the experience of non-Jewish, Russian forced laborers during the Holocaust but, unfortunately, are not enough to constitute a book on their own.
- Bannister, Nonna with Denise George and Carolyn Tomlin. The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009. eBook. 299 pgs. ISBN: 9781414325460. Source: Free download.