Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Bannister's Secret Holocaust Diaries Proves Gripping

  • Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
  • 2009 12 May
Bannister's <i>Secret Holocaust Diaries</i> Proves Gripping

Authors:  Nonna Bannister with Denise George and Carolyn Tomlin
Title:  The Secret Holocaust Diaries
Publisher:  Tyndale House Publishers

Nonna Bannister’s childhood was like that of any other Russian aristocrat.  She enjoyed school, hobbies, family time and holidays.  She took sleigh rides with her relatives near their country home.  And, she was highly educated.  By the time Nonna was six years old, she could speak four languages.

This life was shattered when World War II erupted.  Nonna and her mother, Anna, were forced to flee, and during this time Nonna’s father was savagely beaten.  Nonna was with him when he died—and when soldiers brutalized his corpse.  Nonna and Anna were then tricked into boarding a train bound for a German labor camp.  They spent the rest of the war witnessing and enduring unthinkable atrocities in numerous camps.

During their train ride to Germany, a young Jewish mother threw her baby into Anna’s arms.  Anna caught the child and tried to hide it from the Nazis.  But when they discovered what had happened, they killed both mother and baby, in front of the young Nonna.  After Nonna tried to sneak some bread to a hungry Jewish boy in another railcar, Nazis reprimanded her and forced her into the fields with a group of Jews.  They were told to dig a ditch.  Then the Nazis summarily shot each one.  Nonna survived only because the boy she had helped pushed her into the ditch, then fell on top of her after he had been murdered.  Later, she was able to crawl away and find her terrified mother.

In the camp, Nonna watched as a skeletal-like waif reached under the fence for a rotting rutabaga.  Guards caught the boy and shot him, just a few feet away from Nonna.  There were other atrocities.  Nonna wrote about them all on miniature pieces of paper which she strung together with a piece of thread.  She then placed the diaries into a small black-and-while striped ticking pillow which she kept tied around her waist for the duration of the war—and which she always had by her side after the war, even unto death.

Nonna was the sole survivor of her family.  After the war ended, she immigrated to the United States, where she met her husband, Henry.  She did not tell Henry about the diaries—or anything that she had endured—until their children were grown, and he did not ask.  Then one day she unlocked a trunk in their attic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and showed him her photos, letters, documents and diaries.

Nonna wanted to share her story before she died, so she translated her diaries—which had been written in six different languages, so that anyone who found them could not read them all—into English.  This book is that translation, and it is a very compelling read.  Nonna’s English isn’t perfect and her prose is straightforward, without flourish or detail.  However, it’s surprisingly well-written for the young girl that she was at that time.  Her stories are so gripping that you cannot help but turn page after page.

One issue mars the book, and that is the explanatory insertions/commentary that “co-authors” Denise George and Carolyn Tomlin have included throughout the diary.  Early in the book, the insertions read somewhat like footnotes.  They explain a few of the historical details behind the events that Nonna describes.  This is worthy information to include, and rounds out the story.  Why the publisher chose not to include these as footnotes, however—where the reader could exercise a choice about reading them—is a mystery. 

Mostly, however, these insertions are superfluous summaries of what Nonna is about to write or has already written—and done so quite well.  It’s highly annoying and interrupts the flow of the narrative.  This is particularly a problem when the co-authors choose to include one of their “recaps” immediately before Nonna tells the story, which robs the reader of all suspense.

Worse still, the recaps are written in very simple language that sounds as if the authors are speaking to very small children.  Nonna describes her father’s beating and the fatal wounds that the soldiers inflicted upon him, for example.  Immediately after she shares this, the co-authors tell us again, almost verbatim, what Nonna has just said.  After she shares about staying by his side and nursing him, showing us how dear he was to her, the co-authors choose to throw in an insertion that begins, “Nonna deeply loved her father.”  Several times, after Nonna describes an act of kindness, the co-authors say, “Nonna (doing this act) shows that she has a loving heart.”

It’s a bizarre literary device that simply does not work, and an egregious editorial decision.  At best, the explanations annoy the reader and take him out of the story, again and again.  At worst, they rob him of the joy of literary suspense.  Hopefully, a second edition will delete the overwhelming majority of these and include the few necessary ones as footnotes.

The book is still excellent (if  you ignore the commentary) and a very worthy read, for all ages.  It is, in fact, a true literary gem that is on a par with The Diary of Anne Frank.  As such, it should be required reading in schools throughout the country.

**This first review published on May 12, 1009.