I finished reading “The Secret Holocaust Diaries” by Nonna Bannister today. It was not what I had expected it to be but I was pleasantly surprised.
I had expected it to be similar to “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank but it wasn’t, and for very good reasons. Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who was hiding from the German Nazi’s to avoid being sent to concentration camps and, ultimately, her death. Nonna Bannister was a young privileged Russian girl who is caught up in the German invasion and occupation of Russia during World War II and is forced in to slave labor camps. While both girls endured the Holocaust and recorded their experiences in diaries, they lived very different lives.
Nonna Bannister is born to a Polish father and a Russian mother who is from an aristocratic family. She describes her life in detail from large family reunions in 37-room homes complete with hired help to sleigh rides and a father who spoke 8 languages while working a very prestigious job and a mother who had attended a private school to study music and the arts. Her mother played the violin and the piano and was also an accomplished artist. Needless to say, Nonna was not familiar with any sort of suffering. That changed when Josef Stalin rose to power.
Under the rule of Josef Stalin her family faces the loss of family members and as communism rose her family’s prestige fell because farmland and animals were taken to serve as community property. They were no longer allowed to own private farmland or private livestock, they were also no longer allowed to have hired help so her grandmother had to be deceptive and claim that her favorite staff member was a cousin. Eventually Germany invades Russia and as the German invasion spread and began to occupy all of Russia Nonna’s family lost more of their properties and more of their wealth. The German’s were suspicious primarily of the Russian men so her older brother was sent away so he had a chance of survival and her father goes in to hiding. Nonna and her mother fled and lived in tiny house after tiny house trying to simply survive the occupation. They were eventually offered two choices by the Germans and they chose the one which gave them the best chance of survival but which also forced them to board a train to Germany. The passengers on the train were all separated in to different cars, the Russians, Ukrainians and Polish were forced in to some rail cars while the Jewish passengers were forced in to others. The Russians, Ukrainians and Polish (the East) were allowed to use the bathroom in the bushes during stops and were allowed meager helpings of food while the Jewish passengers were never allowed out of their boxcars and were starved. Eventually Nonna witnesses a mass murder of some Jewish passengers and then she, along with the rest of the Eastern passengers, continue toward Germany. Nonna and her mother are transferred from one slave labor camp to another and then another until Nonna’s ability to speak multiple languages fluently (taught to her by her father) land them a position in a hospital. At the hospital they are treated more like equals than slaves, even though they were technically still slaves, until the German government discovers Nonna’s mother’s deceit and dishonesty and transfers her to a concentration camp.
Nonna struggles, but survives, the ordeal and eventually WWII is over and the camps are rescued. Nonna then realizes her family’s dream of moving to America where she marries and starts a new life.
The whole book is heart-wrenching and tragic (as all Holocaust stories are) but I appreciated the perspective from a non-Jewish survivor. I found the Russian perspective fascinating and eye-opening. Please do not expect this book to be a grand novel as written by a best-selling author, remember this was originally written by a child and young teenager. Nonna originally wrote her diaries in 8 different languages because she was afraid of them being discovered. She reasoned that if they were written in 8 languages they would be harder to translate. She translated them herself when she was in her 70′s and added a few details and memories, those transcripts were then typed out by her husband and eventually published in this book along with editor’s notes to help the reader understand certain references to political figures, people, and events. It is not the smoothest read but it is definitely interesting. I loved it.