Reni­a’s Diary: A Holo­caust Journal

  • Review
By – February 24, 2020

Renia Spiegel was a four­teen-year-old girl liv­ing in Prze­myśl, Poland when she began writ­ing in her diary in Jan­u­ary 1939. Over the course of the next three and a half years, she filled most of its pages with the dra­mat­ic fluc­tu­a­tions of teenage rela­tion­ships: the fleet­ing crush­es, the tumul­tuous friend­ships, the first love and its vary­ing shades of pas­sion. Had Renia passed through these stages into adult­hood and mid­dle age, into the joys and com­pli­ca­tions that those life stages bring, the pas­sions of her youth might have tak­en their right­ful place among the mem­o­ries she would recall in lat­er years with nos­tal­gic amuse­ment. Instead, the diary is a lens into a life cut trag­i­cal­ly short, and because the expe­ri­ence of her youth was all she had, her teenage angst takes on a poignan­cy it oth­er­wise wouldn’t have.

In her lat­er entries, as she approached her eigh­teenth birth­day, Renia’s day-to-day anec­dotes grad­u­al­ly became inter­twined with the encroach­ing hor­ror that end­ed so many lives, includ­ing hers. They are clos­ing our quarter…they are mov­ing peo­ple out of town; there are per­se­cu­tions, unlaw­ful­ness. And on top of that — there’s spring, kiss­es, sweet caress­es, which make me for­get about the whole world.” From that entry on March 25, 1942, her fear esca­lat­ed. On June 19, they were tak­ing peo­ple away all night long.” On June 23, a pogrom. On July 15 she was liv­ing in the ghet­to, ter­ri­fied for her life and pin­ing for Zyg­munt, her love, and ulti­mate­ly the diary’s savior.

As extra­or­di­nary as Renia’s unfold­ing (and now his­tor­i­cal) nar­ra­tive is, hers is also a sto­ry with­in a sto­ry. Renia did not sur­vive the war, but the pages that offered a glimpse into her short life mirac­u­lous­ly did. Holo­caust his­to­ri­an Deb­o­rah E. Lip­stadt pro­vides an intro­duc­tion that con­tex­tu­al­izes Renia’s diary among the many that sur­vived the hor­rors of war. The diary starts and ends with com­men­tary from Renia’s sis­ter, Eliz­a­beth Bel­lak. Through Elizabeth’s accom­pa­ny­ing nar­ra­tion, we learn that the diary made its way from a young Pol­ish girl’s room to a safe deposit bank in New York, where it sat for decades before land­ing into the hands of more read­ers than Renia ever intend­ed. We learn that this writ­ten expres­sion of a young girl’s inner life was so pow­er­ful that it moved her boyfriend to guard and pro­tect it, even as he was try­ing to sur­vive the war him­self. And because he was able to pre­serve the diary, he also saved the mem­o­ry of Renia.

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