The story of how this book came to be is as interesting as the book itself. Just before her death in 2004, a Tennessee housewife of East European descent revealed her long-hidden past to her husband of fifty years. From the time she was a young girl, growing up in 1930’s Ukraine, Nonna Lisowskaya kept a diary. As a child, she lived a charmed life, part of a wealthy family that had managed to keep most of its property in spite of the Communist revolution.
While millions of Ukrainians starved to death, Nonna’s family celebrated a magical Christmas on a beautiful estate, a memory that would sustain her through some terrible times. When the Germans invaded, Nonna’s parents elected not to flee, which kept them alive a bit longer. Much of the rest of her extended family was killed when the retreating Soviet army blew up their own trains headed east, carrying refugees. Her teenage brother had been sent to university in St. Petersburg and was never seen again.
Nonna’s father is killed by the Germans, but she, her mother and grandmother manage to carry on. Seen as traitors by the retreating Soviets, those civilians left in the Ukraine are in a terrible bind. Nonna’s mother decides to take her daughter to Germany, when the Germans offer free transport. Yikes. Beware of Nazis offering train rides! Her grandmother elects to stay behind in hopes of preserving her property and is never heard from again.
On the train ride to Germany, Nonna and her mother are subjected to some horrific experiences, most of them having to do with trains full of doomed Jews traveling in the other direction. Two episodes in particular leave Nonna scarred for life, and even as a reader, are not for the faint-hearted. The book actually opens with the first of these, and I nearly quit reading right then and there.
Nonna and her mother finally reach Germany and become slave laborers in a factory. As a teenager, Nonna already speaks five languages, including German, and the Germans quickly put her to work as an interpreter. Her mother has considerable musical and artistic talent, which the Germans exploit as well. Eventually, they are sent to work in a Catholic hospital where the nuns take special care of Nonna, eventually concealing her there under a German name.
Her mother isn’t so fortunate. Not long before the war’s end, she is picked up by the Gestapo, and eventually dies in a prison camp. She and Nonna somehow manage to correspond to the end, and Nonna is devastated by her death. Her own health fails, and she is deathly ill for many months, though lovingly tended by the hospital’s nuns.
After the war, and finally recovering, she does some medical training, courtesy of the German government, but can’t get out of there quickly enough. She emigrates to the US, where she meets her husband and goes on to have a tranquil and happy family life. For decades, she tells no one what has happened to her, determined to not let her past affect her and her family’s lives in any negative way. But all through the years of the war, she wrote everything down, and took it with her everywhere, concealed in the filling of a small pillow.
For years, she sneaks up into her attic and organizes and transcribes it all into English. Shortly before her death, she shows her husband everything, and he promises to publish it after her death.
This is where the problems lie. Though the story is very compelling, and the writing heartfelt, the editing is problematic. There are also a lot of inaccuracies and considerable confusion when Nonna tries to fill in the blanks years later. There are explanatory notes scattered throughout the text, but the formatting is inconsistent, so it’s often difficult to tell what belongs to Nonna’s original diaries, what is a later recollection of hers, and what has been added by family members.
For these reasons, and of course because of the subject matter, this is not an easy read. Still, it should take its place as an important eyewitness account of a time and events that should never be forgotten.