Diary writing was a major pursuit in prewar eastern Europe. When the Vilna-based YIVO ran a diary contest in the 1930s, asking young people to submit their personal journals, it received hundreds of submissions in Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew. The writers – male and female, secular and from observant backgrounds – expressed their yearnings and described their increasingly challenging lives in Polish cities and towns.
Renia Spiegel’s diary, which was recently translated from its original Polish, begins in January 1939 and can be seen as part of this phenomenon of private writing. When Renia starts to write, she is 15 years old. She seems blissfully unaware of YIVO’s contest, instead citing entirely personal goals for her writing: “Why did I decide to start my diary today? Did something important happen? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. I want somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys … that’s why I have decided to look for a confidant in the form of a diary.”
What Renia does share is her sharp eye for youthful social ups and downs in her southeastern Polish city of Przemysl, alongside an interest in the broader literary world.
Renia’s family situation was unusual. Her sister, dubbed the “Shirley Temple of Poland,” had left with their mother for Warsaw to pursue childhood fame. Her father was minding the family’s property in the countryside, leaving Renia with her grandparents in the city. In her prewar life, Renia feels her existence is already compromised, cut off from the atmosphere and comforts she sees in her friends’ homes.
Renia’s journal becomes a war diary when the Russians move into eastern Poland in September 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which Renia is aware of before war breaks out. “You don’t know,” she tells her diary, having neglected it for a few months, “that the Russians have signed a treaty with the Germans. You don’t know that people are stockpiling food.”
This period under the Russians, which stretched into the summer of 1941, is a kind of interregnum that takes up half the diary. Here we find a portrait of city life under Russian occupation that is little known and revealing from Renia’s point of view as a young Polish Jew.
She witnesses periods of violent threat and disruption in the spring of 1940: “terrible things,” which include “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.… 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 perished.”
The Polonized Jews among Renia’s acquaintances believe the Russian occupation is part of a centuries-old Polish-Russian struggle. This new chapter includes a distinctive Soviet mode of ethnic terror, which included the threat of transport to the “Jewish Autonomous Oblast” in Birobidzhan.
During this period of time, Renia’s diary turns to a variety of normal subjects: she is intensely caught up in her first love affair; she presents a detailed portrait of adolescent and young adult female friendship; and she is a budding poet, inserting her own poetry alongside her readings of Heinrich Heine, Adam Mickewicz, Henryk Sienkiwicz and Julian Tuwim. At the same time, Russian cinema plays in her local theatre.
The arrival of the Germans in June 1941 is an immediate disaster. Przemysl is partially bombed, evacuated, then its citizens dwell in basements as the front moves over them. Within a week, Jews must wear white armbands. Of this, to her diary, Renia writes: “To you I will always remain the same Renia, a friend, but to others I will become someone inferior … wearing a white armband with a blue star.”
Jews are beaten in the streets, sometimes by Ukrainians who are allied with the occupiers. They are dispossessed of their furniture and fur coats, while valuables are hidden beneath the ground in dirt cellars. A curfew is announced in late 1941. This was followed by what the Germans called Aktions – violent nighttime round-ups of many hundreds of boys and men.
Of the city’s ghetto, which was set up in July 1942, Renia writes: “You probably want to know what a closed-off ghetto looks like. 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 very sad.”
The final entry in Renia’s diary arrives suddenly, shortly after this. The reader is shocked to find a few entries by her boyfriend, Zygmunt, whose efforts to save her from a wild Aktion fail.
Promotional materials for Renia’s Diary inevitably link it with Anne Frank, but beyond private musings about family, girlfriends and boyfriends, and a shared pleasure in writing, Renia’s war is another story. There is material in her diary that will catch the interest of younger readers, but in its second half, as Przemysl falls to the Germans, the disaster the diary records is at the centre of the most awful events in history. Renia’s murder is not described, but it is entirely present in the shocking shift from the diary owner’s hand to that of Zygmunt, its new protector.
The story of the diary’s life after the war is a fine one on its own. It is told in an epilogue by Renia’s sister, who survived the war and lives in the United States.
The full tableaux offered in Renia’s Diary – prewar Polish youth, Russian occupation, the special German genius for murder – comes into focus amidst careful accounts of young love and literary passion. The appearance of the diary in English reminds us that Holocaust knowledge is always under renovation.