'Terrible times are coming': the Holocaust diary that lay unread for 70 years

Jewish teenager Renia Spiegel was executed in German-occupied Poland days after her 18th birthday. Decades after her diary resurfaced in America, it is finally set to be read by the world

Seventy years after writing her final entry, the diary of Polish teenager Renia Spiegel, who has drawn comparisons to Anne Frank for her moving account of life as a Jew during the Nazi occupation of Poland and who was shot on the streets days after her 18th birthday, appeared in English this week for the first time.

Running to almost 700 pages, Spiegel’s diary begins in January 1939, when she was 15, and ends on the last day of her life, 30 July 1942, when she was executed by German soldiers. The last lines in the journal are written by her boyfriend, Zygmunt Schwarzer, who ended it with his account of her death and that of his parents: “Three shots! Three lives lost! All I can hear are shots, shots.”

Spiegel’s mother, Róża, and her younger sister, Ariana, survived the war and moved to America. In the 1950s, Schwarzer, who had survived several concentration camps, located them and gave them Renia’s diary. Neither Róża nor Ariana could bring themselves to read it and so the diary lay “dormant”, said Ariana’s daughter Alexandra Bellak, until she decided to send it for translation.

“I realised how important it was, not just for me to learn more about my past but also for the world to see how meaningful this diary was,” said Bellak. “It was very moving. It is heart-breaking and heart-wrenching because you know how the story ends, but also her writing is so beautiful. She’s so mature and thoughtful and introspective. You get a sense of a young woman who’s going through puberty, falling in love with her first boyfriend, having little spats with her sister. You see how intelligent she is – she references philosophers and classical musicians and composers, it’s pretty amazing. With the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism, here and abroad, it’s more timely than ever.”

Alexandra and her mother showed the diary to the film-maker Tomasz Magierski, who was so moved he decided to make a film about Renia. Magierski was also instrumental in having the book self-published in Polish. This summer, Ariana also struck a deal with St Martin’s Press to have her sister’s diary published in English, alongside her own story of survival. This week, an extract from the diary was published for the first time in English in the Smithsonian magazine.

“Readers will naturally contrast Renia’s diary with Anne Frank’s,” writes journalist Robin Shulman in the magazine. “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. 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.”

Ariana as a child, with Renia sitting behind her.
Ariana Spiegel as a child, with Renia sitting behind her. Photograph: Bellak Family Archives

“Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened?” Spiegel writes in the Smithsonian’s translation, by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz. “No! I just want a friend. 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.”

The diary shows a girl with typical teenage obsessions, whether it is her schoolmates (“the next girl in our row is Belka — fat and stocky like 300 devils”), teachers or first kisses. Filled with poetry, it also reveals a girl desperately missing her mother: at the time, Renia and Ariana were living in in Przemyśl with their grandparents. As war breaks out, Renia describes the creation of the ghetto to which they are confined, and the deportation of members of her community. On 26 June 1941, she writes of “horrible days in the basement”; a few days later, she tells her diary of how she will have to start wearing a white armband. “To you I will always remain the same Renia, but to others I’ll become someone inferior: a girl wearing a white armband with a blue star. I will be a Jude.”

“Remember this day; remember it well,” she wrote on 15 July 1942. “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.” Leaving the ghetto without a pass, she writes, is “punishable by death”.

A page from Renia Spiegel’s diary.
A page from Renia Spiegel’s diary. Photograph: Bellak Family Archives

“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,” she writes, later appealing for help: “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. Mamma! My dearest, one and only, such terrible times are coming. I love you with all my heart. I love you; we will be together again.”

Her sister, now 87, said that she never saw Renia writing in her diary when they were growing up. “She must have been hiding it,” said Ariana. “She was very kind to me because my mum wasn’t there and my grandma was old, so my sister was kind of my super mum. She was a brilliant girl, the president of her literary club at school. We used to live at my dad’s estate in the country and she loved the birds and the singing, she loved the trees and the wind blowing … I think she had a soul for seeing things very deeply.”

Ariana and Alexandra Bellak, pictured in Poland in 2017.
Ariana and Alexandra Bellak, pictured in Poland in 2017. Photograph: Bellak Family Archives

Ariana only learned about the diary when Schwarzer arrived with it in America. “He couldn’t have kept it, because his son told us he went to many camps. But he must have given it to someone. He found my mum. He walked in and said, ‘This is Renia’s diary’ and gave it to mum,” she said. “My sister was the love of his life.”

Her mother hid it in a safe and, when she died, Ariana didn’t know what to do with it. She left it alone until Alexandra told her “it was worthwhile for the world to know”.

She has now read the part of the diary published in the Smithsonian. “I never could read it before,” she said. “I started getting sick. It’s just a terrible story.

“Tomasz [Magierski], he got so interested when he saw the diary he couldn’t stop reading it through the night,” Ariana said. “It’s a tremendous story for [Renia], and for everybody else. She had like a premonition that she might not make it, she mentions it [in the diary]. And she dies, she’s young, 18 years. That’s it.”

• The Diary of Renia Spiegel will be published in 2019 by St Martin’s Press.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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