Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Secret Holocaust Diaries

I had the opportunity to review The Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister with Denise George and Carolyn Tomlin. This is definitely not light reading, but it is important to remember from where we've come---so we can ensure we don't return there. For years, Nonna Bannister lived the life of a typical American housewife. She and Henry were married for more than 50 years and raised three children in Memphis, Tennessee. For half a century, Nonna kept a secret locked in the attic: photos, documents, diaries, and memories of World War II. Henry knew their was a sad past, but he never pushed her to share. One day, after spending months transcribing her diary (which was written in 6 different languages), she told Henry, "It's time." Then she shared the stories that had been hidden in her heart all these years. She made Henry promise he would not allow them to be published until after her death. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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