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Voices of Polonia : December 2021

 

Rena Spiegal: A Diary of World War II

Renia Spiegel Wrote a Diary About Her Life During World War II

Background

  Renia Spiegel wrote a diary about her life during World War II.  This diary, kept between the ages of 15 and 18, documents her experience as a teenager living in the city of Przemysl, Poland through the war as conditions for Jews deteriorated.  Spiegel wrote about ordinary topics, such as school, friendships, and romance as well as about her fear of the growing war and about being forced to move into the Przemysl ghetto.  As a diary about the Holocaust, it is unique in that it chronicles experiences under both Soviet and Nazi rule.  Renia Spiegel was a Jewish-Polish diarist who was killed during World War II in the Holocaust.  Though it was in the possession of Spiegel’s family for decades, the diary was not read by others until 2012 and was first published in English in 2019.

 

Early Life

   Renia Spiegel was born on the 18th of June, 1924 in Uhrynkowce, then Poland and now Western Ukraine, to Polish-Jewish parents Bernard Spiegel and Roza Maria Leszczkynska.  She grew up on her father’s large estate on the Dniester River near the border between Poland and Romania, along with a sister, six years younger than her, Ariana (now Elizabeth Bellak), who was a child film star in Poland.

   In 1938, Spiegel’s mother sent her to live with her grandparents in the town of Przemysl, Poland,  while she herself moved to Warsaw to promote Ariana’s acting career.  Ariana was sent to join Spiegel in Przemysl during the summer of 1938.  Spiegel’s grandmother owned a stationery store and her grandfather was a construction contractor. 

  In August, 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the subsequent Nazi invasion of Poland made it impossible for the two girls and their mother to reach each other. Spiegel’s father, Bernard, had stayed on the family’s estate and subsequently disappeared during the ensuing war.

    Separated from their parents, Ariana later said that Renia “was like a mother to me.”  As the war continued, Spiegel attended school and socialized in Przemysl, and in 1940 began to develop a romantic relationship with Zygmunt Schwarzer, the son of a prominent Jewish physician, who was two years older than she. Spiegel referred to Schwarzer with the nickname “Zygu.” 

   When the Przemysl ghetto was established July, 1942, Spiegel moved in  along with 24,000 other Jews.  Two weeks later, Schwarzer, who worked with the local resistance, secretly removed Spiegel from the ghetto  as well as his own parents to the attic of his uncle’s house, because they had not received the work permits they would need in order to avoid deportation to concentration camps. 

   An unknown informant told Nazi police about the hiding place, who then executed the eighteen-year-old Spiegel along with Schwarzer’s parents in the street on July 30, 1942.  Spiegel’s mother, sister, and Schwarzer all survived the war and emigrated to the United States.

 

The History of Her Diary

   Spiegel began to keep  her diary on January 31, 1939 when she was fifteen years old.  The nearly 700 page diary was mostly kept in secret, and was made of seven school exercise books sewn together.  The diary largely discusses Spiegel’s everyday school, social, and family life in Przemysl, touching in particular on her distress at being separated from her mother, her romantic relationship with Zygmunt Schwarzer, fear around the growing war, and the terror of moving into the ghetto.

   In addition to handwritten entries, the diary contains drawings and original poems.  In her final entry on July 25, 1942, Spiegel wrote: “My dear diary, my good, beloved friend!  We’ve gone 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!  And you, my dear Mamma, pray for us today, pray hard.  Think about us and may your thoughts be blessed.” 

    At the end of July, Schwarzer took possession of the diary and wrote the final entry about hiding Spiegel outside the ghetto and about her death. “Three shots! Three lives lost!  All I can hear are shots, shots.” Schwarzer left the diary with someone else before he was subsequently sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.    

   After surviving the camp, Schwarzer brought the diary to the United States and gave it to Spiegel’s mother in 1950.  Spiegel’s sister, Elizabeth (Ariana) Bellak came into possession of the diary in 1969 and stored it in a bank vault until 2012.  Though it was in the possession of Spiegel’s family for decades, the diary was not read by others until 2012, when Bellak’s daughter, Alexandra Renate Bellak, a Manhattan realtor, had it translated into English for the first time by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz. 

    The diary was published in Polish in 2016 and has since inspired a Polish stage play.  Excerpts were first published in English in the Smithsonian  Magazine in 2018.  The first full 90,000—word English publication in titled Renia’s Diary.” A Young Girl’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust”, published in the United Kingdom on September 19, 2019 by Ebury Publishing and distributed by Penguin Books.

   In the United States it is titled “Renia’s Diary:  A Holocaust Journal”  and was published by St. Martin’s Press and distributed by MacMillan Publishers on September 24, 2019.  The diary is also the subject of a documentary film directed by Tomasz Magierski titled “Broken Dreams.”  The film premiered at the United Nations in New York City as part of its Holocaust Remembrance program.  The film opened at a Polish cinema on September 18, 2019.

  Journalists have compared and contrasted Spiegel’s diary with that of Anne Frank with Robin Shulman of Smithsonian noting that “Renia was a little older and more sophisticated….. She was also living out in the world instead of in seclusion.”

   Also writing for Smithsonian, Brigit Katz said that both Frank and Spiegel were “lucid writers, articulate and insightful, in spite of their young age.”  The Columbia University Professor Anna Frajlich-Zajac called the diary “an incredible historical and psychological document, as well as an authentic literary achievement.” Writing for the New York Times, Johanna Berendt said, “At a moment when basic agreement over simple truths has become a political battleground and history a weapon, the publication of the book, “Renia’s Diary” offers a reminder of the power of bearing witness.” 

    On January 31, 1939, a 15 year old Jewish girl sat down with a school notebook in a cramped apartment in a provincial town in Poland and began writing about her life.  She missed her mother, who lived far away in Warsaw.  She missed her father, who was on the farm where her family once lived.  She missed that home, where she had spent the happiest days of her life.  Over the course of more than 700 pages, between the ages of 15 and 18, Renia wrote funny stories about her friends, charming descriptions of the natural world, lonely appeals to her absent parents, passionate confidences about her boyfriend, and chilling observations of the machinery of nations engaged in violence.

  The notebook pages, blue-lined and torn at the edges, are as finely wrinkled as the face of the old woman the girl might have become.  Just two weeks before her 18th birthday, in June 1942, Renia described understanding “ecstasy” for the first time with Zygmunt.  But as her romance intensified, so did the war.  “Wherever I look, there is bloodshed,” she wrote.  “There is killing, murder.” The Nazis forced Renia and her Jewish friends and relatives to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David. 

   In July they were ordered into a closed ghetto, behind barbed wire, under watch of guards, with more than 20,00 other Jews.  Poland had been the country where most of Europe’s Jews lived, and it was also the site of all the major Nazi death camps.

  For Renia’s family, though, the goal was publishing her journal.  The book was published in Polish in 2016.  It was not widely reviewed in Poland—where the topic of the Jewish Holocaust experience is still a kind of taboo—but readers acknowledged its power and rarity.  “She was clearly a talented writer.”  She had a gift for transposing herself onto the page and for bringing great emotional intensity as well as wit to her writing.  

 

By

Ted Rajchel

References:

  1. Wikipedia—Renia Spiegel
  2. How an Astonishing Holocaust Diary Resurfaced in America
  3. Smithsonian Magazine / November, 2018

 

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