After 77 Years, A Vital New Holocaust Diary is Published
Renia Spiegel's diary is a crucial new Holocaust memoir.
For generations, millions of people around the world have learned about the Holocaust through the iconic words that Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager, committed to her diary as she hid from Nazi forces. Now, another diary is offering readers a glimpse into the brilliant prose and tender emotions of another Jewish girl during the Holocaust, Renia Spiegel.
Renia’s Diary is already prompting comparisons with Anne Frank’s work. It’s a beautiful piece of literature, an account of her Polish Jewish community, and a window into the sensitive soul of Renia Spiegel. The fact that her diary survived and has finally made it to publication is a valuable lessons about the Holocaust and the power of Jewish continuity, family and memory.
“Why did I decide to start my diary today?” asks then-15-year-old Renia Spiegel on January 31, 1939. “I just want a friend,” she wrote. “I want somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human could ever be that kind of friend and that’s why I have decided to look for a confidant in the form of a diary.”
At the time, Renai’s life had recently turned upside down. Her beloved mama and younger sister Arianka were in Warsaw, where they were pursuing Arianka’s acting career; in those innocent days before World War II, she was known as Poland’s Shirley Temple and appeared in movies. Renia moved in with her grandparents in the town of Przemysl, and wrote about her new schoolmates in her diary, using prose by turns moving and hilarious. Her penetrating intellect and eye for detail ensure her diary entries breathe with life. Often, she breaks into poetry, penning verses to express the zest for life brimming from her diary.
On September 1, Germany invaded Poland and soon the fighting reached Przemysl. Renia’s entry for September 10, 1939, tells her story through her brilliant poetry:
We left the city
On our own, in the dark, dull night
The city bade us farewell
With the sound of buildings crashing down
Darkness was above my head
Mercy of good people
Mother’s embrace in the far distance
Let them be our guidance
Let them give us comfort and assistance….
The Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Poland, and at first the region’s Jews were relatively safe from the horrors visited upon them by Germans. Reina’s diary for much of 1940 and 1941 is full of gossip about school, plans for parties and concerts, and news about school contests and awards. But the threat of danger for Jews was never far away.
On July 6, 1940, Renia described soldiers coming to collect Jews and send them to far-off Birobidzhan in Siberia, in an area designated by the Soviet Union as a Jewish autonomous region. “A truck rolled by” at night she recorded. “Was it coming here? For us? Or for someone else?” She described watching Jewish families sent to Birobidzhan: “Some people were crying, most of the children were asking for bread. They were told the journey would take four weeks. Poor children, parents, old people. Their eyes were filled with insane fear, despair, resignation.”
"To others I will become someone inferior, I will become someone wearing a white armband with a blue star. I will be a Jude.”
Soon, control of the town shifted from Soviet rule to German, and conditions worsened dramatically. In 1941, Jews in Przemysl had to start wearing special armbands. “To you I will always remain the same Renia,” she recorded in her diary, “but to others I will become someone inferior, I will become someone wearing a white armband with a blue star. I will be a Jude.”
Despite the war and terror, Renia’s diary records a blossoming young woman. She leaves school and works in a factory. Her prose and poetry become even more polished. Soon her diary’s pages have a new focus: Zygmunt Schwarzer, a young man with whom Renia falls helplessly in love. “Suddenly I love him like crazy,” Renia records. “Just think, everything was about to go dormant and today it sprang back to life.”
Renia and “Zyg” spend every moment they can together. They talk about the future, imagining the family they’ll build together. “He understands me so well, like nobody else in the world,” Renia recorded. “The sun woke me up and as soon as I opened my eyes, I thought about seeing Z,” she writes in one moving entry. “The sheer thought made me so happy that I wanted to see him then and there.”
On July 15, 1942, Renia’s world, and the world of Przemysl’s other Jews, changed forever. “Remember this day; remember it well,” Renia wrote. “You will tell generations to come. Since 8 o’clock today we have been shut away in the ghetto. I live here now. The world is separated from me and I’m separated from the world. The days are terrible and the nights are not much better. Every day brings more casualties and I keep praying to You, God Almighty, to let me kiss my dear Mama.”
Renia describes what the ghetto was like: “Barbed wire all around, with guards watching the gates… Leaving the ghetto without a pass is punishable by death. Inside there are only our people, close ones, dear ones. Outside there are strangers. My soul is so very sad. My heart is seized with terror. Such is life.”
It was difficult to see Zygmunt in the ghetto, but later, as Jews started being deported from the ghetto to death camps, Zygmunt hatched an audacious plan to save Renia and others. He first tried to pay guards to spare Renia’s life. When that didn’t work, he encouraged his parents and Renia to hide in an attic to avoid deportation.
Later on he added prose of his own to Renia’s diary: “My parents were lucky to get into the city,” he recorded. “They are hiding at the cemetery. Renia had to leave the factory. I had to find her a hiding place at any cost. I was in the city until 8 o’clock. I have finally succeeded.”
In addition to finding hiding spots for Renia and his parents, Zygmunt frantically tried to arrange hiding spots for other Jews. “These events have shaken me to the core, but they haven’t broken me,” he recorded in his beloved Renia’s diary in his own hand. “I have a terribly difficult task. I have to save so many people without having any protection for myself, or any help from others. This burden rests on my shoulders alone…”
Renia’s last diary entry, from July 25, 1942, records her terror in the face of near-certain death, her love for Zygmunt, and her trust in God. “My dear Diary, my good, beloved friend! We went through such terrible times together and now the worst moment is upon us. I could be afraid now. But the One who didn’t leave us then will help us today too. He’ll save us. Hear, O, Israel, save us help us. You’ve kept me safe from bullets and bombs, from grenades. Help me survive, help us!”
To Zygmunt she wrote: “My dearest, one and only, such terrible times are coming. I love you with all my heart. I love you; we’ll be together again. God, protect us all and Zygmunt and Grandparents… God, into Your hands I commit myself.”
Despite Zygmunt’s best efforts, the Nazis found the hiding place of Renia and his parents. They dragged them out into the street. The final harrowing entry in Renia’s diary was written by Zygmunt, on July 31, 1942:
“Three shots! Three lives lost! It happened last night at 10:30 pm. Fate decided to take my dearest ones away from me. My life is over. All I can hear are shots, shots...shots. My dearest Renusia (Renia), the last chapter of your diary is complete.”
Zygmunt survived Auschwitz and somehow managed to retrieve Renia’s diary. He moved to New York, married, and kept the manuscript. Renia’s younger sister and her mother also managed to survive the Holocaust, and built new lives in New York as well. One day, Arianka (now known as Elizabeth) answered a knock on her door; it was Zygmunt, who had found the sister of Renia, his first love, and wanted to give her the diary.
“My mother was totally shocked,” explains Elizabeth’s daughter, Alexandra Renata Bellak. The diary was too painful for Elizabeth to read, so she put it in her bank’s safety deposit box. A few years ago, however, Alexandra Renata decided to read the diary. “My name is Alexandra Renata,” she’s explained, “so I’m named after this mysterious woman I was never able to meet because she was brutally killed by the Nazis… I wanted to learn about my past and heritage and background” so she decided to have her aunt’s diary translated from the Polish.
The result is Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal. In an introduction to this vital new volume, Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Holocaust History at Emory University, notes that Renia Spiegel has a voice at last. “Those who saved the diary and those who worked to bring it to print have ‘rescued’ her. They could not save her from a cruel fate, nor could they give her that future she so desired, but they have rescued her from the added pain of having been forgotten.”