Nonna Bannister

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Nonna Lisowskaja Bannister
Born Nonna Lisowskaja
September 22, 1925
Taganrog, Russia
Died August 15, 2004 (2004-08-16) (aged 76)
United States
Nationality Russian
Known for Autobiography

Nonna Lisowskaja Bannister (September 22, 1925 – August 15, 2004) was the Soviet-born American author of The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister, a collection of diary entries and memoirs she wrote before, during, and after her time in a World War II German labor camp and kept hidden in a pillow. She kept her diary and her experience during the war a secret from the family she built after emigrating to America until her old age, when she asked that the diary be published after her death. She died in 2004 and the book was published in 2009 with contributions from Denise George and Carolyn Tomlin.

Ancestry[edit]

Nonna's maternal grandparents were Yakov Alexandrovich Ljaschov and Feodosija Nikolayevna Ljaschova. Yakov's father, Alexander Alexyevich Ljaschov, had been a Russian count and Cossack. Yakov himself had served Nicholas II of Russia as an Imperial Guard and was a large property owner in Russia and the Ukraine. He was killed while attempting to escape Russia in 1917. Feodosija's father was a wealthy landowner named Nikolai Dezhnev. When her husband Yakov was killed, Feodosija took her children (including Nonna's mother Anna) to one of their estates in an area of the Ukraine called Santurinowka (later annexed to Konstantinowka) which was still relatively untouched by Russian communism.[1]

Nonna always suspected that her father's family had been Jewish and that her father, Yevgeny, had changed his family name from Lisowitz or Lishkowic to Lisowsky in an effort to sound more Russian. Yevgeny was born in Warsaw, Poland to a wealthy family; his grandfather had owned at least 17 estates in Poland and the Ukraine.[2] Yevgeny's father was named Johan Lisowsky. Nonna never met anyone from her paternal extended family, heightening the mystery surrounding their background.

Nonna's mother Anna was sent to St. Petersburg to study music and art and it was here that she met Nonna's father Yevgeny, also a student at the time. After their marriage, Yevgeny attempted several times to get them out of Russia and back to his family in Poland but without success so they settled in the city of Taganrog where Anna's family owned another house.[3]

Early life[edit]

Nonna was born on September 22, 1925 in Taganrog, Russia to Yevgeny Lisowsky and Anna Yakovlevna Ljaschova.[4] About two years after her birth, her family moved to Rostov-on-Don where her father worked in a machinery factory.[5] Nonna had two siblings: her older brother (by two years) Anatoly, to whom she was very close, and a baby sister Taissia, who died of malaria only days after she was born.

Nonna's father was an interpreter, fluent in six languages,[6] and was insistent that Nonna would be multilingual as well. He taught her Polish, Yiddish, and German by the time she started school at age five and she eventually became fluent in seven languages.[7]

Nonna's maternal grandmother, Feodosija Nikolayevna Ljaschova, was also a big influence on Nonna's early life and her house in Santurinowka (which Nonna called the Great House) served as something of a haven until about the mid- 1930s when the Soviets finally began to take over the property.[8] Feodosija was strongly religious and a firm supporter of the Russian Orthodox church. Despite the closing of churches during the rise of communism, Feodosija made sure all her grandchildren were christened and taught about God.[9]

Growing up in communist Russia was dangerous for Nonna's wealthy family and though they were fortunate enough to be spared much of the suffering (due to her father's good position as an interpreter for the machinery factory), their life consisted of constant fear. Neighbors would disappear, never to be seen again. Nonna was instructed never to tell anyone about anything that went on inside their home and her mother would say that the walls have ears. The family would hide their Christmas tree in the pantry and never displayed their colored Easter eggs.[10] When her teachers discovered that Nonna spoke Yiddish, they became very inquisitive of her father's background.[11] Despite all this, Nonna remembered her childhood as a happy one, with much love.

Life in the Ukraine[edit]

In 1937, Nonna's family decided it was safer to relocate to her maternal grandmother's house in Santurinowka, later annexed to Konstantinowka, in the Ukraine.[12] There, Nonna's parents opened a photography studio and her mother also worked at the theater next door.[13] The farm and orchard on the family's estate also provided them with food and income, though it was heavily taxed by the Soviet government and many of their possessions, such as their horses, were taken from them.

Meanwhile, Nonna's brother Anatoly was enrolled in university in St. Petersburg[14] and not long after, the family arranged to have him taken to Riga, Latvia to escape being enrolled in the army and sent to war. Nonna never saw her brother again, which devastated her.[15]

On August 29, 1940, Nonna's mother gave birth to a girl she named after her very good friend Taissia Solzhenitsyna (who was the mother of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[16]) but the baby died of malaria only days later on September 3.[17]

Many of Nonna's aunts and uncles also lived with them during this time and despite the troubling circumstances, they were able to make some happy memories of their unified time together.[18]

German occupation[edit]

When the Germans began bombing Nonna's town regularly, the Russian military started moving out and evacuating all civilians who wished to go with them and even forcing some who did not. Nonna's immediate family chose to stay behind (though many of her aunts and uncles left), hoping their luck would be better with the Germans and that it would provide them with an opportunity to finally escape Russia and move west. As the Russians left, they burned and blew up everything they could to assure there was nothing left for the Germans to use. Nonna and her family hid in the cellar to shelter from the Russian bombings and searches.[19]

Their hopes of refuge with the Germans were shattered when it became clear the German troops were treating all Russians, even civilians, as a danger, killing mostly young men and boys but also women and old men. The soldiers were also unprepared for the Russian winter and began raiding towns and homes for food and shelter. So the family remained in hiding, apart from Nonna's grandmother, who insisted on staying in the house in case any of her other children returned. Yevgeny began to dig a tunnel from the cellar to the basement of the house with fake walls at either end to hide the tunnel. Since it was safer for women to move about, he hid in the tunnel while Nonna and her mother went to a nearby village in search of food, avoiding minefields by rolling rocks ahead of themselves and following the path the stones took.[20]

While Nonna and her mother were gone, Yevgeny was found in the tunnel by German soldiers who had invaded the house and beaten and blinded. He survived the attack and the family moved him to the house of a kind nearby farmer.[21] He suffered for six weeks before dying.[22]

After his death, struggling to survive in the nearby town, Nonna and her mother returned to her grandmother's house.[23]

Eventually, the Germans offered the Russian civilians transportation to work in German factories and in desperation, Nonna and her mother accepted. Again, her grandmother opted to remain in case any of her children returned. Nonna says in her published diary that she later discovered all those who remained were either forced onto trains to Siberia or killed.[24]

Travel to Germany[edit]

Nonna and her mother, along with many other women, were herded onto the cattle cars of a train on August 7, 1942. Nonna describes in her diary how the Jewish prisoners were loaded into railcars with bars on them and denied food. She once attempted to pass them some of her food but a German soldier stopped her and threatened to shoot her.[25]

In one of the most horrific moments described in her diary, Nonna tells of a Jewish woman who tossed her baby to the women in Nonna's railcar as the train was leaving a stop in Poland but when the baby girl was discovered, an SS officer smashed the child against his knee and killed her.[26]

Not long after, while at another stop near Lodz, Poland, Nonna was caught up in a Jewish execution while trying to give her bread to a small Jewish boy. She miraculously survived when the boy she had attempted to feed threw her into the execution pit before she could be shot and she pretended to be dead until the soldiers left. She managed to sneak back to her railcar after climbing out of the pit of dead bodies.[27]

Life in German labor camp[edit]

Nonna and her mother were initially placed in a compound with an electrified fence where they were deloused, slept on bare cots made of boards, and given striped uniforms with badges that said "OST", which stood for "east" and were given to people from Russia and the Ukraine. While they waited to be assigned to work, Nonna witnessed a boy who was murdered by a guard for stealing some food.[28]

They were then taken to a labor camp in Kassel and worked in a carton factory. They slept on three-tiered bunks which Nonna described as an improvement from the initial compound they stayed in. At the factory, they spread glue on the cartons; Nonna felt the work was not too bad and she and her mother began to have hope that the worst was over.

When they weren't working, they were locked up in the bunk rooms with nothing to do so Nonna's mother began bringing scraps of cardboard from the factory and made them into a deck of playing cards. She also painted pictures for the Kommandant and in return, he would bring the women benefits like extra food. They were marched to and from the factory which meant getting up about 5:00 a.m.[29]

When an SS Officer discovered that Nonna was fluent in several languages, she and her mother were transferred to a textile factory in Lichtenau[disambiguation needed] where there were workers who spoke several languages. Their living conditions were very similar.[30]

In February 1943, Nonna and her mother were moved back to the Kassel camp and soon after, transferred to work in a hospital where their living conditions improved greatly.[31] When Anna slapped an officer who made advances on her, she moved to work in a different section of the hospital, the first time Nonna was separated from her mother.

On the day on Nonna's sixteenth birthday, Anna was summoned by the Gestapo for some document verification and never returned. When Nonna asked the Gestapo, she was not told where her mother was moved to but that it was due to the incident with the Jewish baby on the train traveling to Germany; Anna had tried to protect the baby.[32] Nonna later received a letter from the Gestapo telling her that her mother was a prisoner in a concentration camp in Ravensbrück, Fürstenberg.[33]

Illness and survival[edit]

On October 22, 1943, Kassel was bombed by the British and 90% of the city was destroyed, including parts of the hospital, but Nonna survived and continued to work for the hospital until she developed appendicitis. Her appendix burst and she developed peritonitis as a result, then rheumatic fever, and finally angina pectoris. The Catholic hospital where she worked treated her and gave her emotional support. It took her two years to recover and she had to relearn how to walk but her experience inspired her to become a nurse.[34]

While she was recovering, she received several letters from her mother, one of them informing her that Anna had been moved to a camp in Flossenbürg where an SS officer broke her arms and fingers after she refused to perform on the violin and piano during an illness. The last letter from her mother was dated April 1, 1945. The war ended May 5, 1945 but Anna had died during this small window.[35]

New life in America[edit]

At the end of the war, Nonna applied for a visa to immigrate to America. The process took two years and during that time, German officials offered her German citizenship and a scholarship to medical school in attempts to persuade her to stay. Nonna believed this was because she had knowledge of Nazi war crimes but contributors to the diary felt it may have been because her medical knowledge and experience was in demand.[36] Additionally, she would have been valuable as a translator.

Nonna arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 6, 1950.[37] She met her husband, Henry Bannister, soon after and they married June 23, 1951. They had three children. Nonna did not speak about her experiences during the war, even with her husband, until the 1980s.[38]

Nonna died on August 15, 2004 and was buried with the black and white ticking pillow she had used to hide her diary in throughout her experience as a prisoner.[39]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 16-19). Tyndale House Publishers.
  2. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 24). Tyndale House Publishers.
  3. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 27-31). Tyndale House Publishers.
  4. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 34). Tyndale House Publishers.
  5. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 37). Tyndale House Publishers.
  6. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 32). Tyndale House Publishers.
  7. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 100). Tyndale House Publishers.
  8. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 101). Tyndale House Publishers.
  9. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 50). Tyndale House Publishers.
  10. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 45-47). Tyndale House Publishers.
  11. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 100). Tyndale House Publishers.
  12. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 103). Tyndale House Publishers.
  13. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 109). Tyndale House Publishers.
  14. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 110). Tyndale House Publishers.
  15. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 118). Tyndale House Publishers.
  16. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 260). Tyndale House Publishers.
  17. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 119). Tyndale House Publishers.
  18. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 103). Tyndale House Publishers.
  19. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 122). Tyndale House Publishers.
  20. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 127-129). Tyndale House Publishers.
  21. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 138). Tyndale House Publishers.
  22. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 145). Tyndale House Publishers.
  23. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 161). Tyndale House Publishers.
  24. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 172). Tyndale House Publishers.
  25. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 4). Tyndale House Publishers.
  26. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 7). Tyndale House Publishers.
  27. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 179). Tyndale House Publishers.
  28. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 185). Tyndale House Publishers.
  29. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 193). Tyndale House Publishers.
  30. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 198). Tyndale House Publishers.
  31. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 203). Tyndale House Publishers.
  32. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 211-214). Tyndale House Publishers.
  33. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 224). Tyndale House Publishers.
  34. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 216-226). Tyndale House Publishers.
  35. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 227-230). Tyndale House Publishers.
  36. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 249-252). Tyndale House Publishers.
  37. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 253). Tyndale House Publishers.
  38. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 257). Tyndale House Publishers.
  39. ^ Bannister, Nonna (2009-03-20). The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister (p. 262). Tyndale House Publishers.

External links[edit]