A Slain Jewish Girl’s Diary of Life Under the Soviets and the Nazis
Described as a counterpart to Anne Frank’s diary, a journal written by Renia Spiegel, a Jewish girl who lived in Poland during World War II, is being published in English.
PRZEMYSL, Poland — She was a Jewish teenager in a small trade city in southeastern Poland when she began writing her diary, months before the advent of World War II. By the time she was shot in the head by Nazi soldiers, she had chronicled life under two totalitarian regimes: the Soviets who advanced from the east and the Nazis who came from the west.
Her journal, hidden in a safe deposit box in New York City for decades, has been described as a counterpart to Anne Frank’s diary, a valuable historical document and a poignant coming-of-age story.
Now, the journal of the teenager, Renia Spiegel, all 700 perfectly preserved pages, is to be published in English for the first time. Released on Thursday, it was to arrive in bookstores in 13 countries on Sept. 24, including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States.
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.
In the first entry, Renia made clear why she was writing:
“I want someone 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.”
It is Jan. 31, 1939. She does not know that in seven months, war would come to the increasingly ruined town of Przemysl, a place of noisy school grounds, intimate cafes and romantic alleys where first kisses were stolen. By July 30, 1942, less than two months after she turned 18, she would be dead.
The last passage in the diary was written by the man she had loved during those terrible years, Zygmunt Schwarzer, who survived Auschwitz and was supposed to look after the diary after Renia and his parents went into hiding to avoid being deported to concentration camps. The Nazis found their hide-out, in the attic of a house in Przemysl, and dragged them into the street.
After they were shot, he wrote:
“Three shots! Three lives lost! Fate decided to take my dearest ones away from me. My life is over. All I can hear are shots, shots … shots.”
Alexandra Garbarini, a professor and historian at Williams College in Massachusetts who specializes in Holocaust diaries, said that Renia’s story was unique because she experienced both Soviet and Nazi rule, providing rare insight into Stalin’s less-examined occupation.
“This is such a complete text,” Professor Garbarini said. “It shows the life of a teenager before the war, after the war breaks, until she has to move to the ghetto and is executed. It’s absolutely remarkable.”
It is not clear what Mr. Schwarzer did with the journal before he was sent to Auschwitz, or how he retrieved it in the 1950s, when he was living in New York.
His son, Mitchell Schwarzer, said he did not remember if his father ever told him who had given him the journal.
“I just remember him telling me one day: ‘Look, this is my first girl’s journal! We were incredibly close. She was my spiritual soul mate,’” he said by phone.
Mr. Schwarzer said his father had become obsessed with the diary. “He made copies of it and read it for hours,” he said. “God knows what my mother made of this.”
The journal is first and foremost an intimate testimony of the challenges of becoming a woman and falling in love during a time of war. Renia, in many ways, represents tens of thousands of young women who lived during that time and whose lives were cut short before they could fully embrace their youth and first loves.
She was 15 and staying with her younger sister, Elizabeth, a child actress known as the “Polish Shirley Temple,” at her grandparents’ home in Przemysl when the war broke out.
Renia’s love for Zygmunt, whom she calls “Zygu” and who was one year her senior, is the main topic of her journal, and her writing reveals a typical teenager with adolescent self-consciousness.
Months of painfully shy romantic advances by Zygmunt and skittish expressions of affection by Renia preceded their first kiss, after a walk on the evening of June 20, 1941:
“It was dark; we couldn’t find the way. We got lost, yes, we got doubly lost, or rather — only just found ourselves. It was so sudden and unexpected and sweet and intimidating. I was at a loss for words and terribly mixed up. He said: ‘Renuska, give me a kiss,’ and before I knew it, it happened.”
This was just two days before the Third Reich declared war on the Soviet Union, ending the nonaggression pact, with the Germans sweeping into eastern Poland.
For Renia, when war and ordinary life intertwined, love was almost a necessity, providing desperately needed comfort. She wrote a few weeks after her first kiss:
“When I walk the distant streets with Zygu (such irony of fate: we’re uncertain if we’ll live, the city’s destroyed, war, horrible uncertainty, white armbands), I’m happy, it feels good.”
After Renia and Zygmunt’s parents went into hiding — they did not receive the work permit stamps they needed to avoid deportation — he took over the journal. For the next couple of days, he reported on his desperate, unsuccessful efforts to save “these three most precious human beings in my life.”
He later made his way to New York, where Renia’s mother, Roza, and younger sister, Elizabeth Bellak, born as Ariana Spiegel, were also living. Mr. Schwarzer eventually passed the diary to them. Ms. Bellak, now 88, said that she stashed it for decades in a safe deposit box because she could not bear to read it.
“Renia was like a mother to me when our own beloved mother was far away,” she said. “Every time I opened her diary, I started crying. It was too emotional.”
Renia was an aspiring poet, and her journal features mature political manifestoes and captivating love poems for which, Ms. Bellak said, she had won numerous awards before the war.
On June 7, 1942, she wrote:
“Think, tomorrow we might not be
A cold, steel knife
Will slide between us, you see
But today there is still time for life
Tomorrow sun might eclipse
Gun bullets might crack and rip
And howl — pavements awash
With blood, with dirty, stinking slag
Today you are alive
There is still time to survive”
It was Ms. Bellak’s daughter, Alexandra Renata Bellak, who recognized the journal’s value. In 2014, she reached out to the Polish film director Tomasz Magierski and asked him to help them find a publisher.
Not only did Mr. Magierski help them do so, he also made a documentary, “Broken Dreams,” based on the journal. It opened in a Polish cinema on Sept. 18.
Marcel Tuchman, who was friends with Renia and Zygmunt in Przemysl during the war, recalled the bond the two shared.
“They were just two young people who, thanks to their deep love for one another, saved themselves from the horrors of the war,” he said in an interview in 2016.
Mr. Tuchman remained close to Mr. Schwarzer after they were both sent to Auschwitz, survived it and immigrated to the United States, where they became doctors. Mr. Schwarzer died in 1992, at age 69, and Mr. Tuchman in 2018, at age 97.
But in 1989, during a meeting with Ms. Bellak in New York, he reunited with the diary one last time and wrote:
“I get drunk on the sound of your words. They ennoble me. I feel I am rising above, because I love everything that is yours.”
Ms. Bellak wrote in the afterword of the diary that Mr. Schwarzer had taught her that the “past isn’t long gone; it’s present in our hearts, our actions and the lessons we teach our children.”
“Zygmunt was happily married to Gienia, another Jewish girl from Poland,” Ms. Bellak added. “But he never forgot my sister.”