It’s the 1950s, and Zygmunt Schwarzer is on his way to an apartment in Manhattan, New York City, with an important delivery. He has with him the Second World War diary of a young Polish Jewess, Renia Stiegel. He delivers it to Renia’s sister Ariana and her mother Roza. Unable to face the diary, Roza puts it away unread. It would be decades before anyone could bring themselves to look at it.
Renia Spiegel was born in 1924 into a Jewish family in the village of Uhryńkowce, which was then Polish but is today in Ukraine. Her father Bernard owned a farm, and her mother was Roza. Her sister Ariana came into the world six years later and became a starlet in Polish movies. Roza and Ariana had moved to the Polish capital of Warsaw to further Ariana’s career.
Renia lived with her grandparents in the Polish city of Przemysl, a little less than 180 miles southeast of Warsaw. In late summer 1941, Ariana came to Przemysl on a visit. While she was there, the Nazis invaded the west of Poland at the beginning of September. This triggered the outbreak of the Second World War.
A couple of weeks after the Germans had marched into Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded from the east, seizing the rest of the country. The Communists and the Nazis had made a secret pact to do just this. As the Russians invaded, Przemysl suffered shelling, and the sisters escaped. When they returned, the city was under Soviet control.
And now the two girls were separated from their mother. Roza was stuck in Warsaw, in the German sector. Nazi-controlled Warsaw was an extremely perilous place for a Jew. Shortly after invading western Poland, the Nazis set about persecuting the Jews in earnest as they would do throughout the European territories they controlled.
Especially in the cities, the Nazis began to herd the Jews into ghettos as well as stealing their property and belongings. Conditions in the ghettos were appalling, with starvation and disease commonplace. The Germans established the Warsaw ghetto in October 1939. Conditions were so cramped that an average of more than nine people lived in each room there.
But she was a tough and incredibly courageous woman, this Roza Spiegel, Renia’s mother. Instead of waiting to be rounded up by the Nazis, she set about creating an alternate identity for herself. She got her hands on fake ID and now became a Catholic called Maria Leszczynska.
And Roza, or Maria as we should now call her, didn’t hide away. She spoke good German and got herself a job at the Hotel Europejski, Warsaw’s premier hotel, as assistant manager. And it wasn’t just any old hotel. The Germans had chosen the location for their army headquarters.
Meanwhile Renia and Ariana stayed relatively safe with their grandparents in the Soviet sector. But that apparent security would soon evaporate. Hitler reneged on his secret pact with Stalin in June 1941. Operation Barbarossa saw the Germans sweep across Poland and on into the Soviet Union.
Now, like their mother, the two Spiegel sisters were under the rule of the viciously anti-Semitic Nazis. By this time, Renia had already started her diary, with her first entry coming on January 31, 1939 when she was 15. She was separated from her mother, sister and father, and it was perhaps loneliness that prompted her to start this journal.
Renia’s diary was eventually to grow to several hundred pages long, chronicling the years during which she was becoming a young woman. But they were also years of appalling violence and terrible persecution of Jews in Poland and elsewhere. And it’s this backdrop that makes these diaries much more than just a record of one girl’s teenage years. Some have compared this diary to that of another young Jewish girl, Anne Frank.
The diary is a read of contrasts, with recognizably teenage moments interspersed with the brutal realities of life for a Jew under the Nazis. At one moment Renia writes about a fellow school pupil, “the next girl in our row is Belka – fat and stocky like 300 devils.” Just normal teenage chatter, if somewhat cruel.
But she also describes the reality of Nazi persecution. In June 1941, she addresses her diary directly, “To you I will always remain the same Renia, but to others I’ll become someone inferior: a girl wearing a white armband with a blue star. I will be a Jude.” This entry came on the heels of the Nazis demanding that Przemysl’s Jews wear the Star of David at all times in public.
And then in July 1942 the Nazis ordered the Jews into the ghetto of Przemysl, the city where Renia and her sister were living with their grandparents. Renia writes, “Today at 8 o’clock 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.”
But Renia’s diary also has a tale of romance. She enjoyed her debut kiss with a young lad, Zygmunt Schwarzer, in June 1941. Fatefully, it was on the very day that Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union. And Zygmunt, a year later, helped Renia and Ariana to escape from the ghetto. Zygmunt had joined the resistance and he got the sisters out just before a round-up of Jews who would be sent to a Nazi death camp.
Zygmunt now concealed Renia in an attic room with his own parents. Zygmunt’s uncle lived in the house. Ariana, now 12 years old, is taken to safety, finding refuge with a Christian friend’s dad. The man took Ariana to Warsaw, where she was reunited with her mother. Maria, formerly Roza, had her daughter baptized, so they were both now Catholics, and Ariana had become Elzbieta.
But things turned out much worse for Renia. On July 30, 1942, the Nazis discovered her and Zygmunt’s parents in their hiding place. They summarily executed all three. Zygmunt had kept Renia’s diary while she had been in the attic. And he made an entry that would resonate down the years.
In the diary, Zygmunt writes, “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… My dearest Renusia [Zygmunt’s name for Renia], the last chapter of your diary is complete.”
Then all those years later, in the 1950s Zygmunt, who had survived the concentration camps, delivered the diary into the hands of Renia’s mother Maria and her sister Elzbieta, who had changed her name to Elizabeth. Now living in New York, neither of the two could bear to read the diary. Elizabeth’s daughter Alexandra had the diary translated from Polish into English in 2012.
“I had to know what it said,” Alexandra told The Smithsonian, which has published extracts from the diary. Maria passed in 1969, but Elizabeth has now read her sister’s diary, although it was so painful that she could only manage a few pages at a time. The diary will be published in full in 2019 by St. Martin’s Press and a film about the Spiegel story is in the works.