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Renia's Diary: the teenage writer who documented the Holocaust

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Remember this day; remember it well. 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.

Renia Spiegel

Those were the chilling words that Polish teenager Renia Spiegel wrote in her diary on the 15th of July 1942. Rediscovered recently after being hidden away for over seventy years, Renia’s Diary is a powerful account of the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland and the horrors of the Holocaust. Published by Ebury Press, the diary contains a prologue and epilogue by Renia’s sister Elizabeth and a forward by Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Denial. Renia’s Diary paints a vivid picture of life in the early years of World War II, told with astonishing clarity and skill by a young girl caught up in one of the greatest tragedies in human history.

Renia began writing her diary on the 31st of January 1939. At the time, she was living with her grandparents in the sleepy provincial town of Przemysl in south east Poland. Renia’s sister, eight-year-old Ariana, was a child film star who had moved along with her mother Maria to Warsaw to pursue her burgeoning film career. The girls’ father, Bernard, was away working on a farm. Ariana came to stay with Renia and her grandparents in August 1939.

Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland on the 1st of September 1939. Przemysl was attacked on the 11th and the girls and their grandfather fled for their lives as bombs rained down on the city. They arrived in nearby Lwow, which would quickly surrender to the Soviets. Przemysl was captured by both the Nazis and the Soviets, with the Nazis occupying the half of the city located on the west bank of the river San and the Soviets taking the east side.

Renia, Ariana and their grandfather soon returned to the family home on the east side of Przemysl when it was clear the town would suffer no further damage. Unlike the Nazis on the other side of the river, the Soviets did not deny Jews access to education or paid work, so Renia was soon back at school.

Life carried on as normal until April 1940 when - to Renia’s horror - Przemysl’s occupiers began rounding up Jews and deporting them to the Soviet Union. Ironically, this action saved many Jewish lives when the Nazis turned on their Soviet allies and conquered all of Poland. 

Life throughout the spring and summer of 1940 was one of ups and downs for Renia. She fell in and out of love, went to visit her father, pined for her mother – nicknamed ‘Bulus’ in the diary - trapped in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and expressed her horror as the roundups of Jews continued.

'Terrible things have been happening. There were unexpected nighttime raids that lasted three days. People were rounded up and sent somewhere deep inside Russia. So many acquaintances of ours were taken away. There was terrible screaming at school. Girls were crying. They say 50 people were packed into one cargo train car. You could only stand or lie on bunks. Everybody was singing “Poland has not yet perished."'

It was in September 1940 that Renia finally met and fell in love with the boy who would later be responsible for the preservation of her words and poems. Zygmunt Schwarzer was the son of a prominent local Jewish physician. The pair met on the 21st of September 1940, and sixteen-year-old Renia was instantly smitten.

Between September 1940 and June 1941, Renia continued to document her life and her burgeoning relationship with the boy she referred to as ‘Zygus’ in her diary. Her mother’s absence still played heavy on her heart, but her diary is mainly concerned with her obsession with Zygmunt. Finally, on June the 20th 1941, they shared their first kiss. Just days after that first kiss, the Nazis turned on their Soviet allies.

Renia’s world was about to get a lot smaller and even more terrifying

'I can’t write. I’m weak with fear,' Renia recorded on June 26th 1941. 'War again, war between Russia and Germany. The Germans were here, then they retreated. Horrible days in the basement. Dear Lord, give me my Mamma, save all of us who have stayed here and those who escaped the city this morning. Save us, save Zygus.'

The Nazis quickly drove the Soviets out of Poland. Renia’s world was about to get a lot smaller and even more terrifying. She recorded in her diary in July 1941 that she was now required to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on it. Renia worried that she and her fellow Jews would soon be rounded up and forced into a ghetto. It wasn’t long before her fears became reality.

The Nazis established the Przemysl Ghetto on the 14th of July 1942. The city’s Jews, some 20,000 people, were ordered to enter the ghetto within 24 hours. The following day, the ghetto was sealed off from the outside world.

'Remember this day; remember it well. 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. The days are terrible and the nights are not at all better. Every day brings more casualties and I keep praying to you, God Almighty, to let me kiss my dear mamma.'

In the days that followed the sealing of the ghetto, Renia spoke of her fear at being rounded up and sent away. She realised it was only a matter of time before the Nazis came for her and the people she loved.

'You probably want to know what a closed-off ghetto looks like,' Renia wrote on July 16th. 'Pretty ordinary. Barbed wire all around, with guards watching the gates (a German policeman and Jewish police). Leaving the ghetto without a pass is punishable by death. 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.'

On July the 20th, the Nazis ordered the occupants of the ghetto to pay them 1.3 million zloty to guarantee ‘peace and quiet’. Those who could not pay their share would be arrested and deported. Terrified, Renia wrote her final diary entry on the 25th of July.

'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. 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. God, protect us all and Zygmunt and my grandparents and Ariana. God, into Your hands I commit myself. You will help me, Bulus and God.'

Realising Renia and her family had no chance of raising the money, Zygmunt decided to act. He managed to smuggle Renia and her sister out of the ghetto on the 28th of July. Renia, along with Zygmunt’s parents, were hidden in the attic of Zygmunt’s uncle’s house. Ariana was smuggled to the house of a friend of the Spiegel family and would eventually be taken to her mother’s house in Warsaw where the two would live out the rest of the war hiding in plain sight as Catholics.

Sadly, no such luck came Renia’s way. Two days after being smuggled into the attic of Zygmunt’s uncle, an informant told the Nazis that three Jews were hiding in a house nearby. The Nazis raided the house and discovered Renia and Zygmunt’s parents, marched them out into the street and executed them. A mortified Zygmunt - who had taken over the writing of the diary when Renia went into hiding - made a last entry the day after Renia’s death.

'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.'

Zygmunt Schwarzer was eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz. Luckily, he had passed on Renia’s diary to a friend and both it and he survived the war. After the war, he retrieved the diary and took it with him when he emigrated to New York. Renia’s mother and her sister – now known as Elizabeth – also survived the war and resettled in the same city. In the 1950s, Zygmunt tracked them down and handed over the diary. Neither Maria nor Elizabeth could bear to read Renia’s words. Instead, the diary was locked away in a safety deposit box.

The diary would remain unread for decades until Elizabeth’s daughter, Alexandra, retrieved it and had it translated into English. Renia’s Diary takes its rightful place alongside the diary of Anne Frank as a classic of Holocaust literature. Seventy-seven years after her tragic death, Renia’s astonishing story can finally be told. The girl may be long gone, but her story will live on forever.

Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel is published by Ebury Press, £16.99