MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - You probably know Memphis Dee-jay Bill Bannister for his work on WRVR, 104.5 The River. But you may not know that for nearly a year, Bannister and his sister have been working to find out about family they didn't even know existed.
Thanks to a book written by his late mother, Nonna, Bannister and his sister are on a quest to find out even more about their long lost past.
Nonna Bannister was born into Russian wealth, and had what many would call a good life. By age six, she spoke four languages. But when the Nazis invaded Russia during World War II, Nonna's life turned upside down.
"I don't think they knew what they were getting themselves into," Bill Bannister said. "They actually thought they were going to work, and it wasn't until they got on the train that they were captives and they weren't going to let them go."
Her maiden name was Nonna Lisowskaja. She was only fourteen when she and her mother Anna boarded a train, left the Ukraine, and went to work at a German labor camp.
It was aboard that train Nonna realized the fate of her people.
"One of the ladies on train, fearing for their safety that they were going to get in trouble, spilled the beans that they were holding the baby, and the baby was a Jew baby, and the Germans killed the baby and tossed it from the train," Bannister said.
Once they arrived at the camp, Nonna and her mother were separated. They never saw each other again and only communicated through letters. Once the letters stopped in 1945, both mother and daughter assumed the other had died a cruel death in German concentration camps.
Miraculously, Nonna and her mother Anna survived, and ended up living parallel lives for nearly thirty years.
"She came to the states in 1950, assuming there were no survivors or any she could ever locate," said Nonna's daughter, Elizabeth Bannister Sumner.
Nonna's mother, Anna, moved back to Russia, where she started a new life. Meanwhile, Nonna came to the United States, where she married her husband, Henry.
Nonna's children said they never knew about their mom's past, until Bill Bannister began planning a trip.
"I think it was 1984," he said. "I was applying for a passport and there was a question on form, birthplace of mother, and so I called her up on the phone from radio station, and said "I'm filling out this form and I need to know your birthplace.'"
Bannister said there was a long silence on the phone.
"Then she said 'Taganrog, Russia' and then she broke down and I went to see her later and she told me she was born in Russia," he said
It was Nonna's wish not to publish her book "The Secret Holocaust Diaries" until after her death. She died in 2004 at the age of 78.
Her book was just published in paperback in March 2010.
"Until she started the cathartic exercise, she really, the memories were so painful, she buried them," Sumner said.
Sumner's son, Zach, went on a mission trip to Russia in 2009. He made the trip hoping to find out more about the family he never knew. He took a hardback copy of his grandmother's book with him. There, he ended up finding out more about his family's deep Russian roots through a local newspaper reporter interested in his story.
"One of my mom's cousins came forward, she saw the story, and said this is my cousin Nonna, I remember her," Sumner said.
In August, Bill, Elizabeth, their other brother, and Zach are planning a trip to reunite with that cousin - a family member they didn't know existed.
"We're gonna have to meet my grandmother through other people, and unfortunately there's not going to be a lot of family alive that knew her," Sumner said.
"We're finding out who we are," Bannister added.
A brother and sister, awaiting a reunion with family they've only read about, torn apart and put back together through Secret Holocaust Diaries.
For more on the book "The Secret Holocaust Diaries", click here.
To order a copy of the book, click here.