This book recounts the life of Nonna Lisowskaja Bannister. It is another biography based on a woman living through the holocaust. However, Nonna is not Jewish. She was raised according to the practises of the Russian Orthodox Church. Her grandfather was a Cossack and although he dies rather early on in the story, her grandmother plays a central role in the early years of Nonna's life. There are two central themes, the wonderful memories of her young childhood spent with her family and grandmother in Konstantinowka (Santurinowka) and her experiences in German labor camps during WW2 with her mother. Nonna had to hang to the good memories to have the strength to survive the bad memories. The bad memories were horrible. It is important to recognize that not only the Jews suffered unimaginable horrors during the war. Nonna was the only survivor of her large Ukrainian family. Life under Stalin also influenced who she became as an adult. Even children of this time and place came to realize the need for secrets; not keeping hidden that which is said in the family walls and that which can be said in public. Keeping secrets became a manner of being, a way of life.
The stories about Christmas celebrations, sleigh rides, an abundance of food and well being, garden filled with fruit and flowers. Glorious remembrances of sights and sounds and smells are marvellously imparted.
At the same time there are depictions of such evil events that this book is one of the hardest to read. There are childhood reminiscences of seeing Jews deported into extermination camps, compared to her experiences while being deported into the German labor camps. There is an episode with an umbrella, an episode with a Jewish baby being thrown into the train car and an episode concerning a little Jewish boy called Nathan that came to save Nonna's life that are simply heart-wrenching! That such has happened! The book should be read to know of these events. I will never forget these three events. This book should be read by all.
Now I need to talk a bit about how the book came to be written. It is based on Nonna's diary. After the war she immigrated to the US and she never spoke of her diary, of her hidden photos and letters she had saved from her past. She never spoke of her past - not to her husband and not to her children, to no one! In the 1980s she decided to transcribe her diary notes and poems and other writings into English. They had been written in several different languages. Her father had insisted she learn many languages. That she was proficient in several did in fact save her life. Eventually she spoke to her husband about these memories, writings and saved mementos. She agreed that the material could be brought forth after her death. The truth should be known.
Given the history of how this book came into being one can understand the inconsistencies that the reader finds in the book. Actually that one time she says the bombing of Kassel took 15 minutes or a little less than one half hour is for me insignificant. That she says she was eight when she began her diary and other times she says she was nine; this doesn't bother me either. If I were to talk about what happened in my childhood I am sure I would not keep absolutely everything straight. I see these inconsistencies as a proof of truth.
Many reviewers dislike that the prose is interrupted by comments on Nonna's statements. These are like footnotes, but they occur right in the middle of the text. I liked this. I would often have questions about what Nonna says and the following paragraph would then answer the questions that had just troubled me. However if you never read footnotes, this may disturb you. I wanted to understand; the inserted paragraphs increased my understanding.
There are poems that she wrote as a child. There are religious thoughts about God. Neither spoke to me! At the end of the book there is a map which I only discovered when I had finished the book. Anyhow, it was impossible to read in the ebook format. At the end of the book there is a chronological summary of all the events in the book. This is a bit redundant. Definitely some further editing would have improved the book. At times I asked myself if I hadn't just read a given sentence twice; two adjacent sentences were almost exactly the same! One of them should have been eliminated. So yes, there are problems on how the book has been put together. The errors that have occurred in this book are not due to Nonna's writing. She had an important story to tell. I am very glad I read this book.
You should read about Nathan and about what can be done with an umbrella………
If this book interests you, also check out The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood. I gave that five stars. I am always yapping abour Fraser's book.