Portions of the diary of a Jewish girl living in Poland during the Holocaust were published in English for the first time this week, over 76 years after she was murdered by the Nazis.
Renia Spiegel was 15 years old when she began the journal in January 1939, living in the small southeastern Polish city of Przemysl with her grandparents. The Nazis invaded Poland in September of that year, after agreeing to divide up the country with the Soviets.
Spiegel’s 8-year-old sister, Ariana, who lived with their mother in Warsaw, was visiting Renia in Przemysl when the war began and the city came under Soviet control, with thousands of its Jews deported to labor camps in Siberia and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia’s Far East
“Heard the jangling of keys, a gate being opened. They went in. I waited some more. Then they came out, taking loads of people with them, children, old people… The whole night was horrific. I couldn’t wait for the dawn to come,” Spiegel wrote on July 6, 1940, about the Soviet roundup of Jews.
Portions of the diary’s English translation, published for the first time in English by Smithsonian Magazine this week, also document Spiegel’s longing to see her mother in Warsaw as the Nazis erected a ghetto for Jews in the city, as well as her budding romance with a Jewish boy named Zygmunt Schwarzer.
“We had another wonderful evening. The stars started to emerge, and the moon floated up, and we sat next to each other and talked. When we left, it was dark; we couldn’t find the way. We got lost. It was all so sudden and unexpected and sweet and intimidating — he said, ‘Renuska, give me a kiss,’ and before I knew it, it happened,” she wrote in a happier moment on June 20, 1941.
About a week later the Nazis would capture the area where Spiegel lived and make the local Jews wear armbands bearing a Star of David, before establishing a ghetto in Przemysl to which it ordered the city’s Jewish residents moved.
“Ghetto! That word is ringing in our ears. We don’t know what will happen to us, where they’ll take us,” she wrote that November.
Spiegel would continue to write diary entries on her time in the ghetto through July 1942, when the Nazis began preparing to deport the Jews to the Belzec death camp.
“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,” wrote Spiegel.
Having failed to secure a work permit, Spiegel was set to be deported but was rescued and placed in hiding by Schwarzer, who had started to work with the local resistance. But as Spiegel hid with Schwarzer’s parents, the three were discovered and executed by the Nazis.
The diary was in Schwarzer’s possession at the time, and he wrote the final entry.
“Three shots! Three lives lost! It happened last night at 10:30 p.m. 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, the last chapter of your diary is complete,” he wrote on July 31.
Along with Spiegel’s sister and mother, who survived the war by converting to Catholicism and taking on new names, Schwarzer would survive the Holocaust and in 1952 gave them Renia’s diary after moving to New York, according to Smithsonian.
In the possession of Elizabeth, as Spiegel’s sister later went by, the diary went untouched for decades, until her daughter had it translated after her mother revealed to her that she was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor.
Elizabeth, who had never before read the diary, did so after it was first published in Polish in 2016. She said she felt “sick” reading it, as it brought back the horror she and her sister had gone through.
The family has since contacted filmmaker Tomasz Magierski, who is making a film about Spiegel.
“This is the best story never told,” said Magierski after reading the diary in three days. The filmmaker has taken several fact-finding trips to Przemysl, attempting to uncover details about Spiegel’s final days.
Curiously, Magierski has been unable to locate Spiegel’s name on Holocaust victim lists. As a starting point, he checked with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and its archive has no record of Spiegel or her grandparents, with whom she lived during the war.
A search of Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names did not return a Renia Spiegel from Przemysl. The town’s so-called “Yizkor Book,” published after the war, also does not bear her name, confirmed The Times of Israel.
Renia Spiegel’s diary, which has drawn comparisons to Anne Frank’s, will be published in its entirety in English next year.
“Renia was a little older and more sophisticated, writing frequently in poetry as well as in prose. She was also living out in the world instead of in seclusion. Reading such different firsthand accounts reminds us that each of the Holocaust’s millions of victims had a unique and dramatic experience,” wrote Robin Shulman in a prelude to the excerpts from the diary published in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine.
“At a time when the Holocaust has receded so far into the past that even the youngest survivors are elderly, it’s especially powerful to discover a youthful voice like Renia’s, describing the events in real time,” she wrote.