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Book highlights untold story of Holocaust survivorcomment (0)

April 2, 2009

By Ashley Anderton

In June 2007, Christian author Denise George visited Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. At the time, she had no idea God was preparing her to tell the untold story of one of its courageous survivors. For years, George had studied the history of the Holocaust. Yet she had never written about it.

In traveling to Holocaust landmarks, something was always missing, said George, who teaches a writing class at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, where her husband, Timothy, serves as dean. “I never had a personal contact with the Holocaust,” she said.

A few months after her trip to Buchenwald, George received a phone call from friend and fellow writer Carolyn Tomlin. She would introduce George to a face of the Holocaust. Through scraps of secret Holocaust diaries, she met Nonna Lisowskaja Bannister — a Russian Orthodox Christian who survived Nazi Germany’s labor camps, including Buchenwald, and ended up a Baptist in Tennessee.

Nonna lived a happy American life and died in 2004. Her husband of more than 50 years, Henry Bannister, kept his promise never to tell her secret until after she died. Then one day, he told somebody. Approaching Tomlin at a picnic in Jackson, Tenn., Bannister said, “I hear you are a writer. I have a story I’d like to tell you when you have the time.”

She took the time right then, and for hours, Tomlin listened as he described Nonna’s eyewitness accounts of the labor camps.

Seeking help to publish Nonna’s story, Tomlin contacted George. Together they put Nonna’s words into book form as well as researched her family history, historical events and places mentioned throughout the diaries.

“When I saw Nonna’s diaries, I was amazed these were the actual pictures and diaries she carried throughout the Holocaust and labor camps,” George said. “It was remarkable how Nonna was able to keep everything hid from the [Nazis].”

Nonna kept a small black-and-white-striped ticking pillow made by her grandmother around her waist. The pillow made it possible for her to tuck away her diaries, photographs and war documents, George said. “Without the ticking pillow, we would have nothing left of Nonna’s family.”

Nonna recorded much of her life in diaries. Her first diary, given to her at the age of 9 by her father, describes her life and family. Years later, her diaries — tiny scraps of paper tied together with thread — describe her imprisonment in German labor camps. She even wrote each sentence in a different language — six in all — in case she was caught with the diaries.

George said she cried as she read Nonna’s diaries. “I was horrified at what a 14-year-old girl could endure at the hands of Hitler and still survive. Many stories Nonna shared are not told anywhere else in history. Only by reading Nonna’s story would we know.” 

But for the first 46 years of their marriage, even Nonna’s husband didn’t know. Then the day came for her to open the lime-green wooden trunk in the attic containing her memorabilia. She introduced him to her family one photograph at a time and to her diaries. Wanting him to be able to read all the words, she gave him English transcriptions of the diaries handwritten on yellow legal pads, something she did just prior to sharing her story with him.

It was those yellow legal pads that George and Tomlin used to write “The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister.”

George said this book differs from others about the Holocaust because “unlike Anne Frank, whose diary was found after she was killed at an early age, Nonna lived through all of this and as an older woman, was able to reflect back on her experiences. It is a brand-new find.”

Nonna’s story is also different because she was born in Russia, stayed with her grandmother in Ukraine a lot as a child and was not Jewish.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, millions of Soviet prisoners of war (POW) died from a lack of food, clothing and shelter. By spring 1942, the Germans began deploying the POWs to forced labor camps. Nearly 3 million Soviet citizens were transported to Germany and other countries.

In summer 1942, Nonna and her mother were loaded onto a cattle train and sent to work in these labor camps. Nonna remained a prisoner, bouncing from camp to camp, until the end of World War II in 1945. In the end, she was the lone survivor of her family.

The one thing that gave Nonna the strength to survive was her solid foundation of faith in God. She grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church, and her grandmother’s faith had a lifelong influence on her.

After the war, Baptist missionaries came to Germany. It was then that Nonna became a Baptist. Sponsored by a Baptist church in New Orleans, she was given the opportunity to come to America to start a new life. A church member provided employment and a place for her to live.

According to George, the miracle of Nonna’s story is “she kept her love, kept her faith and was able to forgive and have a wonderful life loving her husband and loving her children. She did not become a bitter old woman.”

“The Secret Holocaust Diaries” can be purchased from LifeWay Christian Stores by visiting www.thealabamabaptist.org and clicking on the LifeWay button.

For more information on the book, visit www.secretholocaustdiaries.com. For information about George, visit www.authordenisegeorge.com or e-mail cdwg@aol.com.


Deerfoot to hold remembrance day
After being handed a copy of “The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister” (see story, this page), Roger Willmore read the book in one sitting. “I was deeply touched by Nonna’s story,” said Willmore, pastor of Deerfoot Baptist Church, Trussville, in Birmingham Baptist Association.

So touched, in fact, that he decided to move the church’s normal Sanctity of Life emphasis from January to April in order to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day as a church April 19 (two days before the national celebration).
That day, the church will look at the sacredness of life on a global scale, Willmore said. Denise George will speak in the 10:30 a.m. service, and Carolyn Tomlin will lead an age-appropriate assembly for children.

If your church is planning to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, please submit an announcement for the “Across Alabama’s Associations” column to news@thealabamabaptist.org by April 7. (TAB)

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