Renia's Diary: A Holocaust Journal
By Renia Spiegel
Preface, Afterword, and Notes by Elizabeth Bellak with Sarah Durand
Foreword by Deborah E. Lipstadt
Diary translated by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz
St Martin's Press, New York 2019
336 pages, illustrated with black-and-white family photographs
Renia's Diary: A Holocaust Journal is a 2019 release of a diary kept by a teenage girl living in Przemyśl, a small and ancient city in southeastern Poland, under Soviet and then Nazi occupation. The diary begins on January 31, 1939, eight months before the start of World War Two, and ends on July 31, 1942, one day after Renia Spiegel was shot to death by German Nazis. Her boyfriend, Zygmunt Schwarzer, wrote the final entries after Renia's death. Interspersed in the diary are Renia's poems. Like the diary itself, the poems are well-written and poignant. They describe nature, daily life, and young love. The diary has been expertly translated from Polish. Renia was a born writer, with a writer's desire to play with language, to live up to great writers she had read, and to present the hidden gems of daily life to the reader. Had Renia survived, she would have made valuable contributions to Holocaust literature. As it is, her diary offers an exquisite glimpse into what genocide really means. Genocide is not, primarily, a matter of statistics. Rather, genocide is the obscene erasure of countless, unique human lives. I join with many other reviewers in highly recommending Renia's Diary.
Ariana Spiegel was Renia's little sister. She now goes by the name Elizabeth Bellak. Elizabeth's forty-three pages of notes fill in family history. Renia Spiegel was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1924. Her father managed the family estate. He employed Polish and Ukrainian workers and grew wheat and sugar beets. Elizabeth was a stage and film actress known as "The Polish Shirley Temple." Their grandfather ran a construction company. Renia wrote proposals and drew up estimates for the company. This grandfather employed workers who loved him, Elizabeth reports. The grandparents also employed Pelagia Palivoda, a "simple Polish woman," as a live-in maid. "Pelagia had devoted her life to my grandparents."
The Spiegel family was not very observant. "We celebrated the high holidays." "Until the Germans came we never felt different … I never witnessed" antisemitism on the part of Poles.
In Renia's diary, though, she does mention that some Poles say, "You lousy Yid." Renia also mentions, after the Nazi invasion, that children throw stones at her, and that "the meanest streetwalker provokes and insults me" in the presence of her boyfriend, and that neither she nor her boyfriend dare take action.
Elizabeth's best friend, Dzidka Leszczyńska, was Catholic. "Our friends and classmates were Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian, and we didn't distinguish among them. Our teachers didn't, either." The girls felt Polish, as much as any Catholic might. After her mother Rose died in 1969, Elizabeth was cleaning out a closet in the US. She found Krakowski Strój, that is, "the embroidered, beaded, traditional Polish vests" that Renia and she had worn to a Polish Dożynki, or harvest festival. "Right there in those suitcases sat my childhood. Right there was Poland."
Elizabeth, in her notes, describes their lives in Przemyśl as revolving around "school, and there were constantly parties, dances, and get-togethers." Renia does not write a great deal about the Holocaust, and anyone choosing this book in order better to understand the mechanics of war or genocide will be disappointed. Rather, Renia writes about what the reader was probably obsessed with when he or she was Renia's age. Renia writes a great deal about her boyfriend, Zygmunt, and about the challenges and rewards of being young and in love. She writes about her classmates. She writes about how desperately she misses her mother. She records her prayers, and any person of faith will have to confront Renia's appeals to God in this text, appeals that, one must conclude, were not answered.
Renia doesn't write much about the war until close to the end of her diary, that is her murder in July, 1942. Close to the end, she is still writing about spats with girlfriends, picnics, and worries about getting fat. Renia appears not to grasp the fate that awaits her, the fate that had already descended on many in Nazi- and Soviet-occupied territory. Her apparent obliviousness echoes many Holocaust-era memoirs and diaries. Germans, the most civilized people in the world, would come close, over the course of a few short years, to bringing to an end the millennia-old Jewish presence in Europe. This was utterly unimaginable to many people until well after the war, until documentary films, survivor stories, and overwhelming statistics were shoved under people's noses.
Renia's lack of awareness highlights how surreal the Holocaust was. Renia's inability to grasp what is happening right in front of her eyes shocks the reader. It should shock us. We should never take the Holocaust for granted. And we should take to heart an unspoken truth from Renia's diary. Atrocities can erupt in even the most blessed of lives, in the most civilized, and the most ordinary of settings, and we must be vigilant against hate-mongering and scapegoating, especially from leaders.
Rose Spiegel's brother Maurice, Renia's uncle, moved to France in the 1920s, became an architect and engineer, married a French woman, and may have converted to Catholicism. He returned to Poland in 1938, because he was worried about what Hitler might do. He tried to convince Rose to take her family and to move to France with him. Renia was eager to go to France with Maurice. Rose rejected this plan. She wanted to stay in Poland. Rose knew Germans. She had attended university in Berlin and Vienna, and she spoke German fluently. Offered what was an escape from a Poland that would soon become a killing field, she rejected it. The Holocaust was unimaginable to her.
Elizabeth's notes, and Renia's diary, describe life descending to a horrifying new low once Operation Barbarossa began in June, 1941 and Germans advanced into the formerly Soviet-controlled portion of Poland. "Almost immediately after [Germans] invaded, they began to suppress the Jews." Jews were ordered to wear a white armband with a blue star of David. "When I first saw one, something in me died. My family and friends and neighbors who wore them weren't people any more. They were objects," Elizabeth writes.
Elizabeth describes her final farewell with her grandparents, who, she surmises, were probably shot to death by Nazis in Grochowce forest with many other elderly and infirm Jews. Zygmunt rescued Elizabeth from a similar fate, taking her to the home of a Catholic family, that of her best friend, the Leszczyńskis. They hid her, though she had no papers, and, as Elizabeth writes, "If Mr. Leszczyński was caught… he'd be sentenced to death." Indeed, Renia was probably shot because some unknown person had informed the Gestapo about the hiding place Zygmunt had arranged for Renia and for his own parents, who were also shot. Given that betrayal, Mr. Leszczyński thought it best to get Elizabeth out of Przemyśl, and reunite her with her mother Rose in Warsaw. Rose, with the help of Catholic friends, was passing as a non-Jew and working as an administrator at Warsaw's Hotel Europejski. The hotel was used by the Nazis for hundreds of Wehrmacht officers. A Nazi officer had fallen in love with Rose, offering her greater protection.
No sooner had Elizabeth and Mr. Leszczyński arrived in Warsaw than a szmalcownik, or blackmailer, stepped forward and accused Leszczyński of smuggling a Jewish child. Leszczyński threatened to kill the man then and there. The szmalcownik fled. Elizabeth writes,
Ludomir [Lezczyński] was tall, selnder, and aristocratic-looking, with a thick mustache and a confident way of walking and talking. I didn't know it till much later, but during the German occupation, he was in Żegota … the Council to Aid Jews … Mr. Lezczyński was devoutly religious, but he didn't see barriers among people. In his business and his life, Jews, Roman Catholics, Ukrainians, Poles, and more worked together for the good of society and their families, and for that reason his daughters' best friend might as well have been his own.
Rose's underground network of supporters helped Elizabeth to be baptized and acquire new papers. Even so, Warsaw was not a particularly safe place for Polish Catholics. At one point, Elizabeth and her mother were ensnared in a łapanka, or roundup. During these roundups, Nazis selected Poles for forced labor and deportation to concentration camps. Rose spoke German and thus escaped being rounded up. Later, Rose and Elizabeth escaped the mass executions following the Warsaw Uprising thanks to the Wehrmacht officer who had fallen in love with Rose.
Zygmunt placed Renia's diary with another person before he was sent to Auschwitz. Zygmunt survived Auschwitz, claimed the diary, came to the US, and presented the diary to Rose in the 1950s. Elizabeth took possession of the diary after Rose's death in 1969 and stored it in a bank vault. In 2012, Elizabeth's daughter, Alexandra Renata Bellak, had the diary translated into English.
There are many jaw-dropping details in this story. For example, Zygmunt Schwarzer's concentration camp was liberated in the spring of 1945, and by fall of '45 he was studying to be a doctor in Germany under former Nazi professors. Zygmunt's and Renia's friend Maciek, who also survived Auschwitz, took the same path, graduated with honors in 1949, and became a physician in the United States.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Holocaust History at Emory University, provides a foreword to Renia's Diary. Lipstadt compares and contrasts the value of documents about the Holocaust, memoirs, and diaries. Memoirs, she points out, are of course "the voices of those who survived." Diaries are different than memoirs, she says, because diaries allow us to hear those who did not survive. Too, memoir authors know the end of the story, while diarists do not. Diaries also offer emotional immediacy. Renia writes of what were, to her at the time, highly traumatic events. For example, she saw her boyfriend flirting with another girl. As Lipstadt points out, much worse is on the horizon. If Renia had survived and written a memoir, she might be tempted to flatten or delete mention of spats with her boyfriend. Since she wrote contemporaneously, she had no way of predicting the much worse things she would encounter, and so her emotions in the moment are preserved in the diary genre.
Renia's Diary is every bit the personal, unedited diary of a teenage girl. It is repetitious, and there is no page-turner plot. Her diary offers the reader an awareness one cannot get from documents: the Nazis didn't murder statistics. They murdered uniquely alive human beings. The then-mightiest military machine in human history was honed to destroy this one, ebullient, romantic, poetry-obsessed child. A child worried about getting fat. A child attracted to and yet fearing her first kiss. A child who writes poems about a movie magazine discarded in a trash bin, the death of an elderly woman, storks, and linden trees.
Once the war starts, Renia participates in defense activities. "I'm fighting alongside the rest of the Polish nation … and I'll win! … We Poles are fighting like knights in an open field where the enemy and God can see us." Still, she worries. "I don't know how to laugh in a flirtatious way. When I laugh, it's for real, openly. I don't know how to 'behave' around boys." When a boy she fancies looks at her, she is aflutter.
We sat opposite each other at the Russian club this week. He stared at me. I stared at him. As soon as I turned my eyes away from him, I could feel his eyes on me. Then, when he said two words to me, I felt crazy, filled with hope. I felt as if a dream was coming true, as if the goblet was right by my lips.
Renia rejoices when she learns that she has won a competition and is to be awarded a complete set of the works of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's national poet. She recognizes that death surrounds her.
A piece of shrapnel fell into our house. These have been horrific days. Why even try to describe them? Words are just words. They can't express what it feels like when your whole soul attaches itself to a whizzing bullet. When your whole will, your whole mind and all your senses cling to the flying missiles and beg, "Not this house!" You're selfish and you forget that the missile that misses you is going to hit someone else.
Renia witnesses atrocities. "Some monstrous Ukrainian in a German uniform hit every [Jew] he met. He hit and kicked them, and we were helpless, so weak, so incapable … we had to take it all in silence." Later, in that same entry, for July 28, 1941, she watches wounded German soldiers march past her. "I'm sorry for those young, tired boys, far away from their homeland, mother, wife, perhaps children. Someone says heartfelt prayers for them, too, and weeps for them during sleepless nights." She writes a poem that concludes,
Who can explain to me why
I curse the thousands and millions
and for the one wounded, I cry?
Indeed, the delight Renia takes in words is one of her North Stars. She writes a poem about the pleasure she takes in trucks, their sounds and movement. She mentions, elsewhere in the diary, reciting Julian Tuwim's poem "Lokomotywa," or "Locomotive," and it's possible that she is attempting something similar to Tuwim's onomatopoeia in her poem about the truck.
What good are poets in wartime? Renia answers,
I can spread silvery cheer
wrap trees in warm moss, both far and near
I know where tiny dwarves reside
and blow forth bubbles with dreams inside
I can make starry skies appear
right in the middle of the day
and I know a magical world
of elves and princesses, castles in air
I know a whole world that isn't there…
Someone asked me with reproach, "And you,
You write poems, but can you do much more?"
A motif one frequently encounters in Holocaust-related literature: excoriating those not in a concentration camp for attending a party or laughing while others were sent to concentration camps. For example, Elie Wiesel wrote, "While Mordecai Anielewicz and his comrades fought their lonely battle in the blazing ghetto under siege … a large New York synagogue invited its members to a banquet featuring a well-known comedian."
I think Elie Wiesel could have benefitted from reading Renia's Diary. In March of 1940, Renia and her friends "threw snowballs, sang songs, and composed poetry. I wrote a poem that's already in the school paper." In April and May of that year, the Soviet Union carried out the Katyn Massacre of Polish army officers. In June of 1940, the Nazis opened Auschwitz with 728 Polish prisoners. No rational or ethical person could object to Renia enjoying snowball fights and poetry competitions while, hundreds of miles away, and unbeknownst to her, her nation's finest were imprisoned and living their last, miserable days. Let us hope that the "while this was happening you, far away, were happy" motif disappears from Holocaust literature.
I'll long remember Renia's Diary. In fact I dare to say I'll never forget Renia herself. Through this book, I have come to know one person from the overwhelming statistics, and that is a powerful blessing indeed.
Danusha Goska, PhD is the author of Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype and God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.
This review appears on the Polin site here