The Story of Nonna Bannister (WWII Stories)

Nonna Bannister carried a secret almost to her Tennessee grave: the diaries she kept as a young girl experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust. The Secret Holocaust Diaries is a book about a girl who was taken from Russia to Germany to work in a labor camp during WWII. Nonna’s writings tell the remarkable tale of how a Russian girl, born into a family with wealth and privileges, was exposed to the concentration camps and learned the value of human life and the importance of forgiveness.

In August of 1942, Anna (Nonna’s mother) and Nonna had to leave Russia. They boarded a train headed for Kassel, Germany. They were packed into cattle cars with other women in order to go work in Germany. In her diary, Nonna writes, “We are packed like sardines in a can into the cattle cars of the train.” The train passed through Poland on its way to Germany. At one of the stops in Poland, a young Jewish woman tried to save her baby by tossing her into Anna’s arms.

In her diary, Nonna shares,
“Mama and I had placed ourselves closer to the open door of our train car, hoping to get some fresh air. Suddenly there was a young girl running alongside our car – no one knew where she had come from. She had a look of terror in her eyes, and she had her arms around a small bundle. Her black hair was blowing in the wind, and she was so thin that you could see her bones protruding from her neck and her shoulders. She hurled her bundle at Mama, and before any of us realized what happened, Mama stood there holding a bundle in her hands – and we heard a baby cry! The young woman was still running alongside our train car. She yelled out, “Please, oh please save my baby – please give her a Russian name!””

Anna’s mother wanted to save this baby and give it a Russian name as the desperate Jewish mother pleaded from alongside the train. However, Dunja, another woman told the SS about the baby, “It’s a baby Jew – the Jewish woman threw it into our car at the last stop.” After hearing this, the SS guards then killed the baby. Nonna’s mother wept in shock after the baby was killed. Anna was trying to do the right thing in trying to save the baby from the SS.

In February 1943, the Germans transferred Anna and Nonna to work in a hospital that had been built for the prisoners of war and people from the labor camps. The hospital was for people of all nationalities. It was built like barracks and was adjacent to the Catholic hospital at Marienkrankenhaus, Germany. Nonna explains in her diary, “When we arrived at the hospital, two Catholic nuns came out to greet us and were joined by the priest. They were so friendly and so kind that Mama and I were a little bit in awe! The nuns directed us up to the fifth floor of the Catholic hospital and assigned a room for us to live in.” As the translator’s note reveals, the Catholic hospital must have seemed like paradise to Nonna and Anna. They had been sleeping on mattress less boards at the camps, and here they had real, clean beds. They also enjoyed good healthy food instead of stale bread and watery cabbage soup. Though they were still technically prisoners, the nuns and priests treated Anna and Nonna like valued coworkers.

As Nonna writes in her diary, “Mama and I were very happy that such good luck had come our way, and we were treated like family members by the priests and the nuns.” The nuns gave Nonna the German name Lena Schulz to hide her identity. In reflecting on her diary entries, Nonna expresses, “We felt a great deal of security with the Catholic nuns and priests taking care of us and shielding us from the unrelenting terror that the Nazis had unleashed against so many innocent people.” The translator’s note in Secret Holocaust Diaries adds, “Nonna believed that the Catholic nuns at Marienkrankenhaus saved her life. She later credited them with hiding her from her enemies and protecting her from danger.”

In September 1943, the Gestapo sent Anna a letter telling her to report to the Gestapo headquarters for some document verification. Anna reported as she had to and after that day, Nonna’s mother never came back. Nonna had no idea what happened to her mother. Four weeks after her mother disappeared, Nonna received a card of notification from the Gestapo that her mother was a prisoner. The card had been mailed from the Concentration Camp Ravensbruck, located in Furstenberg. Nonna writes in her diary, “The postcard was very official, and it was mailed in October 1943. The card had my mother’s prisoner number on the front – her number was 23893. These numbers were tattooed on the prisoners’ arms, so there was no way out for her now that she was a marked woman.”

Records show that 132,000 women entered Ravensbruck between 1939 and 1945. 50,000 women died there. Nazis enacted slave labor, inflicting strict rules and grave punishment, even death. The Soviets liberated Ravensbruck in April 1945. Given the Nazis’ knowledge of the Jewish baby incident, Anna surely suffered severely at Ravensbruck. The nuns cared for Nonna after her mother was sent to the concentration camp. The nuns arranged for Nonna to attend a parochial school to complete her high school education.

The nuns who were part of the Catholic order running the hospital in Germany went against the grains of the time and treated Anna and Nonna with dignity and respect even though Anna and Nonna weren’t Germans and the nuns were instructed to treat Russians such as Anna and Nonna as prisoners. The nuns changed Nonna’s name in order to protect her and once Anna was taken away by the Gestapo, the nuns took it upon themselves to look after Nonna, an adolescent at that time.