Faith, love & forgiveness of a Holocaust survivor

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JACKSON, Tenn. — Nonna Lisowsakaja Bannister's nightmarish childhood and youth was too much to share, even with the man she fell in love with and married.

Stories continue to be unearthed of the Holocaust in which countless Jews were exterminated by Adolf Hitler during World War II. Many people, however, may not be aware that non-Jews also were Holocaust victims, such as Nonna, a Russian girl who was imprisoned in German labor camps with her mother, who later was transferred to a concentration camp where she was burned to death in an oven. Her father was brutally killed by Nazi soldiers. She was the only known survivor of 35 members of her extended family.

Nonna, a strong Christian, survived the nightmare, later immigrated to the United States and eventually married Henry Bannister. The Bannisters lived in Houston for many years before moving to Memphis where they lived until her death in 2004. Though they never moved their membership from a Baptist church in Houston, they regularly attended Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova.

After a fruitful life with a good marriage and three beloved children, Nonna Bannister's story is finally being told thanks to the involvement of Baptist writers Carolyn Tomlin and Denise George.

Tomlin, who has written for numerous publications, and her husband Matt, a retired pastor, live on the same street where Henry Bannister now lives with his son and daughter-in-law, John and Kathy Bannister. Henry Bannister approached Tomlin at a neighborhood cookout in the fall of 2007, having heard that Tomlin is a writer who might help tell his wife's story.

Tomlin was fascinated by Bannister's account of his wife's experiences and she enlisted the help of George, a friend and fellow author in Birmingham, Ala., who also teaches a writing class at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, where her husband, Timothy, serves as dean.

Using notes in Nonna Bannister's own handwriting, Tomlin and George helped produce "The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The untold story of Nonna Bannister," which is being released this month by Tyndale House Publishers. April 21 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For 40 years, Nonna Bannister could not bring herself to tell her husband about what she had endured in the Holocaust. Henry sensed the pain his wife carried, but never pressed the issue.

In the early 1990s, as her health became a concern, Henry encouraged his wife to begin writing some of her "family tree" for their children. At about that time, Henry noticed his wife would get up during the night and go into his office and write.

One day, Henry said he came home and his wife said she had something to show him. Nonna had taken the handwritten notes she had made during her childhood and after her Holocaust years and translated them into English for her husband and family. She also showed him photos and other items she had kept hidden over the years.

"It is time," she told him.

"It took me weeks to get over the shock of what I was reading," Henry recalled. "Her world was turned upside down by World War II." He told his wife her story needed to be published. She was agreeable, but stressed she did not want it written until after her death.

"She did not want to relive it over and over again," daughter-in-law Kathy Bannister suggested.

Nonna Bannister wrote her own introduction for what would become a book that she would author with the help of Tomlin and George.

In the preface of the book, Tomlin and George explain that during Nonna's imprisonment she wrote her diary entries on small scraps of soiled paper, tying them together with a piece of thread. "As Nonna told her family later, in order to confuse her Nazi captors in case they found her makeshift diaries, she wrote in six different languages — each sentence in a different language," Tomlin and George wrote, recounting that the original scraps of paper did not survive the intervening years. Her proficiency in languages had come at the urging of her father, who spoke eight languages.

Nonna Bannister was able to hide her notes, along with photos and other family documents, amid the geese feathers of a small black and white striped pillow of heavy fabric made by her grandmother (typically called a ticking pillow) that she kept tied around her waist. The pillow became a symbol of what she endured; she kept it throughout her life and would not go to sleep without it. The pillow was placed in her casket at her death.

Bannister wrote that the pages she translated for her family were transcribed from her diaries and the notes she had written in several languages. She began writing when she was 9 and still living in Russia.

"I have worked on keeping these all together since 1942 when Mama and I were leaving our homeland and were being sent to Germany as 'slave labor.' In these notes, I have kept a record of all the terrors, atrocities and the new life into which I was thrown. Throughout these ordeals, I never forgot my grandmother and the rest of my family that had been torn apart and ultimately destroyed.

"When I would hear a train whistle in the distance, I would immediately think that my dear brother, Anatoly, would be on that train and on his way back to us. This work is an attempt to tell the truth about what took place during World War II under the direction of Hitler and his Gestapo troops." Nonna Bannister acknowledged in her introduction that "it is very difficult for me to relive that part of my life," noting that the memories "are still with me — so precise and vivid."

"However, I have an uncontrollable desire to write about those years of my life, which were filled not only with sad events, but also with happy times when I was growing up and still had all my family."

After Tomlin heard Henry's story and contacted George, George's agent, Greg Johnson, wrote a proposal for the book and sent it to a number of publishers. They subsequently signed with Tyndale.

Nonna's book, in reaching a worldwide audience, has a message for people of all ages, Tomlin said, citing three themes: "forgiveness; love triumphs; and faith in God will carry you through regardless of circumstances."

"Any problems I have had in life," Tomlin said, "are so minor compared to what the people who experienced the Holocaust went through."

Regarding forgiveness, Tomlin said, "This has taught me I should forgive anyone because Nonna was able to forgive others for the injustices done to her family."

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."

George had studied the history of the Holocaust for years, having visited Buckenwald in 2007, but had never written about it. Something was always missing when she traveled to its landmarks: "I never had a personal contact with the Holocaust."

"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's story is also different because she was born in Russia and was not Jewish.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, millions of Soviet prisoners of war died from a lack of food, clothing and shelter. By the spring of 1942, the Germans began sending the POWs to forced labor camps, transporting nearly 3 million Soviet citizens to Germany and other countries.

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

The one thing that gave Nonna the strength to survive was a solid foundation of faith from having grown up in the Russian Orthodox Church and being influenced by her grandmother's faith.

When Baptist missionaries came to Germany after the war. Nonna was later sponsored by a Baptist church in New Orleans and given the opportunity to come to America to start a new life. A church member provided employment and a place for her to live.

Nonna's story is miraculous, George said, not just because of her survival but that, in enduring the atrocities and the losses, "she kept her love, kept her faith and was able to forgive."

For more information on the book, visit www.secretholocaustdiaries.com.

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