The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister
by Nonna Bannister, with Carolyn Tomlin and Denise George

NLB Partners, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4143-2546-0.
Reviewed by Marion Mitchell
Posted on 06/21/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

The Secret Holocaust Diaries is an unforgettable book and its author, Nonna Banister, an unforgettable woman. Her book is both beautiful and truthful. It speaks plainly of utter love and devastating loss.

Nonna's early story took me on a journey to Eastern Europe before Russian dictatorial oppression and World War II had ravished the land and its people. Through the sensory innocence of a young girl, Nonna tells of one glorious Christmas: the tastes of homemade preserves and fresh heavy breakfast cream; the house filled with magnificent cooking aromas; her grandmother's fireside stories; and the wreath and jingle bell-bedecked horse-drawn sleigh packed with family and traveling through the deep winter snow to church. Stories of beauty and love.

Equally unforgettable, and often horror-ridden, are Bannister's later stories about her family's experiences of Russian oppression, starvation, and war. In a historical sense, Bannister's perspective is important because she was not Jewish. Yet, she was a victim of the Nazi Holocaust. In her diaries, she bears witness to her experiences. For example, she includes her observations of significant distinctions between Nazi treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners. Also as a historical record, a variety of noteworthy artifacts have been copied into the book (a postmarked birthday card from Tsar Nicholas II to Nonna's grandfather; a colored drawing of patches required to be worn by prisoners; postcards from concentration camps, etc.)

Bannister was born in 1927 and named Nonna Lisowskaja. She lived in the Ukraine and was raised with the traditions and values of the Orthodox Catholic Church. Her story was published posthumously, in large part because Nonna had shared only the barest of facts about her Ukrainian history and dark trek across Europe with anyone, including her American family. Not even her husband of over fifty years knew of her ancestry or how she had emerged from World War II intact. Year after year her husband waited, trusting that she would one day tell him her story. That day finally came.

A few years before her death in 2004, Nonna painstakingly translated her girlhood diaries from the approximately five languages in which she had written it into the last language she learned--English. In her introduction to the book, Nonna wrote that she had hoped that her story could make a "small contribution to the history of mankind."

When Nonna Lisowskaja immigrated to America in 1950 at age 23, she brought with her one treasured possession: a black and white ticking pillow stuffed with the "soft breast feathers of young Russian geese" made for her by her beloved grandmother. The pillow contained all of her secrets (carefully hidden documents, correspondence, and family photographs). Within its meticulous stitching was her precious diary which chronicled both the idyllic and the tragic from her childhood and young adult years. Every night of her life, she slept with this pillow at her heart.

I highly recommend The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister. Share it with family and friends.

Nonna Bannister (1927-2004) included a page about herself in her diary transcript before her death. It lists her favorite composers, opera singers, ballet dancer, pianist, artists, writers, poets, and the things she loved to do. Above all, most important in her life were her husband, Henry; her children, and her grandchildren.

Editor Denise George is the author of twenty-four books and teaches "The Writing Minister" at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. She can be reached via her website, or by email at

Editor Carolyn Tomlin, M.Ed., in a frequent speaker on teaching others to write and publish. She is the author of eight books, writes monthly columns for several magazines and newspapers, and has published more than three thousand articles. She can be reached at her website or by email.

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