The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister

It is nearly eighty years since the end of World War Two but I don’t think we will ever lose the chill that runs down our spine when we hear the word “Holocaust.” We are instantly reminded of the six million Jews and at least five million other victims, including prisoners of war, Romany, homosexuals and people with disabilities, who were cruelly and callously slaughtered in the gas chambers and incinerators of the Nazi Concentration camps. The official definition of holocaust is “ destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war.” The word is actually of Greek origin, meaning quite literally: “burnt offering.” I don’t think there is any other word in the English language that can possibly convey the depth of evil that sacrificed millions on the altar of Aryan racial superiority. Today, January 27, is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. Today, we remember all the victims of The Holocaust.

We’ve probably all heard the famous quote from Spanish and American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is the thinking behind the #WeRemember campaign – Learn from the Past. Protect the Future. Organisers behind the campaign say:

Learning about this history, and understanding what led to the greatest tragedy in modern times, can help prevent future genocides and acts of hatred based on religion, ethnicity, or other differences.

One of the best ways of remembering the victims is to hear the stories from those who miraculously survived. This is particularly important amid the rise of anti-Semitic and hate speech, and acts of genocide, violence and atrocity that still continue to this day. Sometimes the hatred and violence in this world makes you despair about humanity. Another thing that might make us despair is the ignorance of people. I was quite shocked to read that:

  • 66% of American adults don’t know what Auschwitz was
  • About 1 in 20 Europeans have never heard of the Holocaust
  • 21% of people aged 18-24 in France have never heard of the Holocaust
  • 49% of young American adults cannot name a single concentration camp
  • 40% of German high school students cannot explain what happened in Auschwitz

These are frightening statistics. I don’t know what the statistics would be for Australia, but then, I have met Australians who had a vague idea that the Holocaust was something to do with the Jews. I think I was so stunned by the response I didn’t know what to say. How can people not know this? Quite easily I suppose. My school history education was pretty non-existent, but still I knew.

The Secret Holocaust Diaries tells the story of Nonna Bannister, a young Russian girl who emerged from World War Two as the sole survivor of her family. Whenever we hear The Holocaust mentioned, we usually immediately think of the Jewish victims, but we also know there were many other victims caught up in the Holocaust. Nonna is one of those victims. Although there is some speculation as to whether her polish father may or may not have been jewish, Nonna’s family were Russian Orthodox. However, they were slavs, and due to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Nonna and her mother were caught up in the transport of Russians to Germany to work in the slave labour camps. The book opens with their journey by train to Germany and then travels back in time to tell the story of her family’s history from the 1917 revolution, through the Great Depression and the years under Stalin, culminating with her experiences during World war Two and her emigration to the United States in 1950.

A significant part of the book is devoted to the early years of her life. Nonna was a diary keeper from about the age of eight right through her life and the narrative is based on her diary entries. Fluent in about seven languages, Nonna translated her diary into English later in life, adding extra detail, memories and reflections. Throughout the book there are essentially three perspectives given: young Nonna, older Nonna and the two editors gifted the job of bringing her story to publication. At times the narrative is a bit repetitive and disjointed, mainly due to the insertion of the editorial notes, which, while very useful in providing additional context, may have been better as footnotes. As can be expected, there was probably a lot more diary material to draw upon for the early years of Nonna’s life. Keeping a diary during her time in the labour camp would have been very difficult, limited to scrounging scraps of paper and writing while under constant supervision.

At the beginning of the book, Nonna declares her desire “to see her homeland, Russia, become free again as it was before she was born…where creativity, art and music would flourish again someday, free and independent”. It is a noble thought, however it is important to note that Nonna’s family were former members of the nobility and still quite wealthy even at the time of her birth in 1927. The stories passed down to her from her mother and grandmother would have depicted a life far different to that experienced by the peasants. Until the Depression years, when most of their property was confiscated, her family had more or less escaped Stalin’s attention. Even then, until the beginning of World War Two, Nonna’s life was still one of reasonable comfort – all things considered. The war changed everything.

First her older brother Anatoly was sent to Latvia with an uncle to avoid being drafted into the Communist Youth Club and Russian army. Nobody knows what happened to Anatoly because they never saw or heard from him again. Prior to Germany’s invasion, members of Nonna’s extended family joined one of the last trains evacuating Russians further east, deeper into Russian territory. They were killed when the trains were bombed, according to rumours, by the Russians themselves. Her father had tried numerous times before the war to get the family out of Russian territory, to no avail. For some reason, not fully explained, he felt the need to go into hiding in a tunnel he dug between the house and the cellar, where he was discovered and beaten up by drunken German soldiers. He died six weeks later of his injuries.

Knowing the German army was advancing, Nonna’s father had developed a plan:

we would wait for the Germans and try to explain, hoping that they would allow Papa and us to travel to Romania or Poland – anywhere out of Russia. Papa had planned it all for so long, he did not anticipate any problems…papa spoke German fluently, and he counted on making them understand our plight and to help us out.

In hindsight this plan seems awfully naive, but given the Soviet Union had been effectively cut off from the West, perhaps they honestly didn’t know what had been happening in Europe. Years later even Nonna had to conclude that her father had been way too optimistic about his ability to reason with the Germans.

In 1942 Nonna and her mother join the transport of Russians to Germany to work in the factories. At the time, Nonna felt they had little choice because they feared later reprisal from the Russians for not evacuating before the arrival of the German army. Whether this was a valid fear is difficult to say, but in any case, as Nonna said years later, “We did not see what was waiting for us in Hitler’s Germany.

While certainly not as bad as the Concentration camps, conditions in the labour camps were poor. Imprisoned by electric fences, given striped uniforms and cloth identification badges to wear, and sleeping on bare boards, they struggled to survive. Initially they were sent to work in a cardboard factory. Later Nonna and her mother were given work in a hospital for prisoners of war. Nonna’s gift of languages was recognised and she often worked as translator. However, on Nonna’s 16th birthday, unbeknownst to Nonna, her mother, Anna, had been ordered to visit the Gestapo for a routine document validation. She never returned. Anna was first sent to Ravensbruck and then Flossenburg concentration camps. The reason for her internment can only be speculated, however there was an incident on the train regarding an attempt to save a jewish baby’s life and later Anna refused the amorous advances of a Russian doctor. From what we know now, little excuse was needed for potential arrest, internment or execution.

Nonna eventually receives some letters from her mother but she never sees her again. Nonna continues working in the hospital, where the Catholic nuns hide her from the Gestapo by giving her a new name. Unfortunately, she became quite sick, contracting rheumatic fever but is given the opportunity to continue her education including training as a nurse.

After the war, Nonna discovers, via a last letter from Anna which includes a note from a friend of Anna’s, that her mother had been forced to perform concerts for the Gestapo. She had been a gifted musician, but when she refused due to ill health, they broke her arms and her fingers. Gangrene set in, and when Anna lapsed into unconsciousness, her body was thrown into the incinerator – still alive. Just imagine the trauma and the devastation this news would cause a young woman who has now lost everyone she ever loved.

Nonna eventually emigrated to the US in 1950 where she met and married Henry Bannister. They had a loving and happy marriage and raised three children. After 53 years of marriage, Nonna died in 2004. Common to many Holocaust survivors, Nonna was quite secretive about her war experiences. This may have been due to a determination to focus on the happy times in life, but she never shared her diaries with Henry until a few years before her death. Nonna made Henry promise not to reveal her story until after her death. While Nonna felt a great responsibility to record her story for history, she couldn’t bear to live through it again with its publication in her life time.

The Secret Holocaust Diaries were first published in 2009. While Nonna shared her diaries and translations with Henry before her death, after her death her family have been unable to find the original diary entries from the Holocaust years. Nonna had a special little pillow, which she kept on her person during the war years, that contained her diaries, photos and documents. It is speculated that perhaps she sewed the missing entries into the pillow before her death. Knowing the pillow was special to Nonna – she never slept without it – Henry ensured it was buried with her.

The missing entries do provide somewhat of a dilemma for any historian, as it is difficult to compare the translations with the original. We also know that memory isn’t always reliable and the revelation of the diaries decades after the events makes corroboration difficult. For historians, personal diaries can be an exciting find, but they also need to be approached with a critical eye. Every survivor’s story adds a little piece to the puzzle, and while I feel that there are a few issues with the narrative, I believe that Nonna’s sense of responsibility to share her story, given the tragic and horrible loss of her family, is of the greatest value.

I am compelled to put everything into writing for those who do not know or refuse to believe the true story of what happened. There are not many of us left who know of those horrible times, and we must pass the knowledgeable on to those who should know the true history of all the horrors. It is the only way to keep such a thing from ever being repeated again….It is up to us survivors to be brave and let the whole world know all about the horrors that took place.


2 thoughts on “The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister

  1. It is truly frightening that we forget so much of the horrors of the past. Diaries are so powerful, Bronte did a transcription project with the state library and ended up having to turn down further work on diaries of soldiers who did not survive the trenches, they had her in tears on a regular basis. But it is so important we remember! A brilliant post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, Bronte must have such a tender heart. I can imagine it would be difficult and emotional work. Diaries add such a more personal and intimate perspective to historical events. The further events recede in the past, the more remote they can feel to us without the personal stories.


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