The diary of a Polish teenage girl murdered by the Nazis records her extraordinary bravery
Renia Spiegel’s diary begins, as diaries traditionally do, in the new year. It is January 1939, and Renia, an upper-middle class Jewish girl, is 14. She lives with her grandparents in a small city called Przemyśl, which was then in south-eastern Poland and is now on the border of Ukraine but “the truth is”, she confesses, “I have no real home. That’s sometimes why I get so sad and have to cry.”
Her glamorous mother is in Warsaw with her eight-year-old sister, Ariana, a successful child actor, and Renia misses them terribly. Like most diarists, she wants someone safe to confide in: “I just want a friend. I want someone I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys.” Renia really just wants her mother, and her diary acts as a surrogate parent. She also uses the pages to draft her poems, and wonders, with new year optimism, if she might keep the diary going “until the end of our lives”.
When war breaks out in September, and the German and Soviet armies invade Poland, Przemyśl will be split into two occupied zones, with Renia on one side and her mother, still in Warsaw, on the other. For the moment, however, Renia has other things to worry about. She and her best friend, Norka, have a crush on their teacher, and she hates Irka, the most beautiful girl in the class. “I inherited this hatred: my mummy didn’t like Irka’s mother much when they were at school.”
There is also the problem of holidays: Renia was supposed to go to France, “but Hitler took over Austria, then Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Klaipeda, and who knows what he’ll do next. He’s affecting my life, too.” She does not know the end of the story, but we do. Renia Spiegel was shot by the Nazis at 10.30pm on July 31 1942.
Her diary was not read until 70 years later, when Ariana’s daughter, Alexandra Renata, retrieved it from the safety deposit box in a Chase Bank in Manhattan. Ariana, now in her nineties, has read “only a few parts” of the 700 pages, “and they’ve made me sick or made me cry”. She has, however, provided the book with a preface and detailed end notes, in the hope that her sister’s death will “show us why the world needs peace and acceptance”.
While Renia’s Diary belongs on the same shelf as the Diary of Anne Frank, Renia does not have the same clarity of voice or range of perspective as 13-year-old Anne. An introspective teenager, her focus swerves between the love she feels for her absent mother and the love she feels for her boyfriend, Zygmunt (“Mama! If you could only see him”). Her entries frequently combine hope with fear, often in the same sentence. When, by October 1939, there is still no word from her mother, she asks “Holy God” to “please give me an easy death”. The next day she notes that the Russian soldiers are very handsome, and one of them wants to marry her.
Daily life continues as her world disappears: she worries about being ugly, about being popular, about whether Zygmunt will dance with her at parties. She evolves as a writer and a poet:
The lights in the houses are all out
And the loudspeakers are now dumb
The shops and stalls are closed again
The hot day is done…
On March 16 1940, Renia and Norka agree to keep a joint journal “to see what happens a year from today and 10 years from today. So, wherever we are, still friends or angry with each other, healthy or ill, we are to meet or write to each other and compare what’ll have changed from now. So remember, March 16 1950.”
On July 22 1942, she is angry with Zygmunt: “It’s his fault. He is right, I’m resentful and helplessly in love.” On July 23, she decides she needs to “improve” herself. On July 24: “Dear God, help us. The city is in danger.” On July 25, she gets a letter from her mother, enclosing a smiling photograph: “Holy God has us in his care!” That same evening she writes her final entry: “Mama! My dearest, one and only, such terrible times are coming.” Zygmunt smuggled Renia and his parents into his uncle’s attic, where they were found and shot. Ten years later, Zygmunt, who survived the Holocaust and became a doctor, gave the diary to Ariana and her mother, now living in New York.
It is a privilege to read these pages, and an impertinence to review them. Renia Spiegel was an astonishingly brave girl who developed into a remarkable young woman. She loved deeply and was loved in return. In the notes he made to the precious book she left in his care, Zygmunt wrote: “My dearest Renusia, the last chapter of your diary is complete.”
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