Monday, February 10, 2020

Renia's Diary: A Holocaust Journal. Review in Polin by Danusha Goska

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.

This review appears on the Polin site here

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Facebook Bullying and Polish Identity

Someone advised me to "friend" a Catholic author. I did.

The author is far to the left of me, as are a good percentage of his friends. We are also culturally different. I am a child of immigrants, lifetime poverty, when living in America, almost always on a coast, or wishing I were on a coast, among very diverse people, the people I think of as "my" people. When I lived in Indiana I never got over regarding WASPs as exotics, and I'm sure they never got over regarding me as an exotic creature, either. And yes you can be Catholic and still be culturally WASP.

We are, simply, not the same. Their ancestors came over on the Mayflower and owned slaves. My ancestors were serfs. Their grandma spoke English and served them Jell-O molds with little marshmallows. My babicka warned my mother to avoid rushing streams or the Vodnik might pull her under. One of my aunts was gang-raped by Red Army soldiers. One of their aunts breeds show dogs. You get the idea.

One of the conversations revolved around Jussie Smollett's accusations. A participant believed Jussie Smollett. I had an ethnographic curiosity about anyone who could believe Smollett's outlandish tale of being attacked by a MAGA-hat wearing lynch mob early in the polar vortex morning in one of Chicago's more wealthy and Democratic neighborhoods. I googled the person who believed Jussie Smollett and discovered that he lives in an all-white town in an all-white county in a virtually all-white state.

Of course, Jussie Smollett's story has since been proven false.

I call such folks "rich, white liberals." If you don't actually know any black people, your pontifications about black people are of questionable value. Black people sure as heck did not believe Jussie Smollett. "Rich" is relative. Have you been able to go to the doctor when you get sick? Did you always have shoes as a child? Have you ever eaten something that disgusted you because you were hungry, no other reason? My answers? No, no, yes. Yours? If they are opposite, I think of you as rich.

When I try to talk to rich, white liberals on Facebook, no matter how carefully I tread, I always hear the same thing. "If you don't agree with the rich, white liberal positon, you are clearly a KKK member."

This always gets me. I have never lived in an all-white town in an all-white county in an all-white state. When I was growing up, my next-door-neighbors were black, and we were intertwined. Either I was at their house or the little girl was at my house playing with me.

My first job after graduating from college was in Africa, in what is frequently called either the world's poorest country or one of the world's poorest countries. I currently live, and have lived for almost twenty years, in a majority-minority city, and my students are significantly minority.

Kind of an odd CV for a white supremacist.

I believe, and I state publicly, that rich, white liberal ideas have hurt, and continue to hurt, black people. Maybe, just maybe, rich, white liberals would benefit from honing their ideas about how to uplift others against others' real life experience. Rather than doing so, they label anyone who disagrees with them racist, including black conservatives like Shelby Steele and John McWhorter.

Rich, white liberal arrogance and contempt for poor whites like me is a big part of the reason Trump got elected.

A lot of what goes on on the internet in "religious" environments has nothing to do with virtue at all. It has to do with showing off. It has to do with signaling one's own virtue. Rich, white liberal trolls scour the internet, sniffing out posts that they can misinterpret, so that they can use another human being as a box to stand on, to make themselves taller. See? See how good I am? And here I am in this Catholic environment, gooder than this bad bad bad person, upon whom I stand.

Conservative Catholics do this just as much as liberal Catholics do. "YOU VOTE DEMOCRAT? YOU BABY MURDERING BEAST!"

Note: I vote Democrat. I have never murdered a baby.

There is so much of this uncharitable straw-manning and one-upping that it has damaged my faith. Where are the real Christians? I mean that. Where are the people who tell the truth, and are kind to one another, and work toward the good? Rather than bullying and lying and accusing and using what others' say to advance one's own virtue profile? I seek them just as Diogenes sought an honest man.

Want to know the truth? The bulk of the best people I have met on the internet are not Christian at all. They are Jewish, often secular Jews, or agnostics or atheists or people with only the thinnest thread of connection to Christian faith.

The best internet conversations about virtue I have not had in overtly "Christian" or "Catholic" environments.

But I digress.


In this liberal Facebook environment, that is, the Facebook page of the aforementioned left-wing Catholic author, I said today that if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic candidate for president, he will hand the presidency back to Trump. I said that I and many others would never vote for Bernie Sanders. I said that his people murdered and tortured my people, and by his people I meant communists.

Is it correct for me to associate Bernie Sanders with communism? You can debate that. This June 18, 2019, American Spectator article by Dov Fischer takes the pro position. I'm sure there are many good facts that can be adduced in the anti position. I can say that I've heard Bernie Sanders talk, and he sounds like the communists I used to hang out with in my misspent youth, when I was living in New York City and hanging out with self-identified, card-carrying communists. Sanders also sounds like government propaganda in Soviet-era Poland, where I lived for a bit over a year.

After I posted that I would not vote for Sanders, and that I associate him with communism, I was rapidly denounced as an anti-Semite.

Note: at no point did I reference that Sanders has Jewish ancestry. I say "Jewish ancestry" because I don't think of Sanders as Jewish. I don't get the impression that having Jewish ancestry has any significance to him. In fact I'm aware that he is allied with people I think of as anti-Semitic, including Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

One woman denounced me first, and then others joined in. They quoted me saying things I never said. In no time, one of those doing the denouncing sniffed out my Polish name and made derogatory comments about my Polish ancestry.

The woman who first accused me was named Nan. Nan. Nan is perhaps, along with Buffy, the ultimate WASP girl name. I'm guessing she's Catholic – again, this was a Catholic Facebook page – but the name is very WASPy. Her last name is both the name of an American city and an American hero.

Often when someone says something on Facebook that disgusts me I visit the person's Facebook page. I do this because I want, better, to understand their full humanity.

I visited Nan's Facebook page. Photos of a lovely, upscale, arts and crafts home. Photos of skinny women with long silky, blondish and brunette hair and good teeth in matching pajamas, and then photos of those same women in miniskirts. Of course a dog and a front yard and matching, gold-rimmed china and cloth napkins carefully folded, napkins that match the paint on the dining room walls, and candles and a multigenerational family and houseplants and people holding champagne glasses on a vast, green lawn with every fat blade of grass the exact same height, and palm trees swaying in the background and a marble bust … oh, you get the idea.

Want to know the first thing that came into my mind when I looked at Nan's Facebook page?

This is the kind of woman I would clean houses for. This is the kind of woman my mother cleaned houses for. This is the kind of woman my grandmother, had she lived in America, would have cleaned houses for.

Nan City-American-Hero-Last-Name that ends in a consonant. This is the woman who accused me of being an anti-Semite because I said that if the Dems nominate Sanders, they hand the election to Trump, because many of us don't want to vote for a man we associate with communism, and some of us have actually lived under communism, and our loved ones suffered under communism, in ways that they, with their sheltered, privileged, rich, white liberal lives, could never understand.

Nan's carefully folded napkins, and her dining room walls, are a color I could only ever call the color of blood. We have different cultural references. Different memories. Different triggers.

This bugged me. It didn't bug me because some rich witch on the internet and her gaggle of bullying "friends" lied about me. It didn't even bother so much that I encountered such evil and dishonesty and cruelty among people who, presumably, self-identify as Catholic.

I hurt for my mother, a brilliant writer and thinker, who spent her life cleaning houses for women so much stupider and less powerful than she. Women like Nan still control the narrative and women like my mother and me still are defined by them.

A woman like my mother will never be a college president or a bestselling author or an invited guest on a televised debate about poor white ethnics. And my mother was a silent – a silenced – house cleaner because she was a Slovak immigrant, the child of a coal miner who had to quit the mines thanks to black lung, who had to leave school at 14 and support her whole damn family. Her fate was sealed at 14 years old.

No, my mother's fate was sealed when she was born in the river Nitra, that my grandmother retreated to during a hot day of sugar beet harvest. People like that are not the people who are allowed to speak, to define, to tell their own story. People like Nan get to do all those things. They put words in our mouths, words we never said, and then using those false quotes, they make ugly accusations against us.

I hurt for my aunt, raped by Red Army soldiers, a rape that, if I mention it, would somehow be interpreted by these rich, white liberals as identifying me as some other lowlife that they would misquote and denounce, because it would destroy them to feel the pain of someone whose loved ones suffered under communism.

A communism that they can hold up as all rainbow colored unicorn farts, as painless "free college!" and "putting the billionaire class in their place!" because they never stood in a food line, they never had a relative who disappeared or who was unpersoned, they never were roused from sleep at night and put on a boxcar they didn't leave till arriving, weeks later, at Kolyma – Kolyma – a word we should know like we know Auschwitz, but that Nan has never heard, and would silence if she ever heard it.

I hurt for my name, that my name, to this day, identifies me as less than Nan City-American-Hero-Last-Name.

I hurt for us, for Bohunks, for people who were less than when I was a kid, and a Polak joke could silence us, and who are still less than today, because we are not the ones telling our own story.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Yad Vashem Apologizes for Inaccuracies about Poland in Auschwitz Anniversary Videos

"Israel's Holocaust Museum Apologizes for Inaccurate Videos"  Associated Press

Yad Vashem has apologized for inaccuracies in videos it showed during a recent 75th anniversary commemoration of the end of the Nazi concentration camp. 

Quotes from the article, below. 

"Yad Vashem said the videos neglected to mention Poland's division between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 or Nazi Germany's conquest of Western Europe in 1940, showed incorrect borders of Poland and labeled concentration camps as extermination camps...

January's memorial event, which marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, was beset by conflict over competing national narratives as Russia and Poland seek to leverage their interpretation of the past for contemporary political gains...Poland ... has tried to downplay its own complicity in the Holocaust"

Note that the Associated Press reports that when Poland attempts to address historical revisionism it is merely trying to leverage interpretations for political gains and to downplay its own complicity. Poles are liars; Poles are criminals. Poles do not tell the truth, and can never be trusted. That is Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype

Full text here