Thursday, January 31, 2019

I just want a friend

‘Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. Somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys.’ This is Renia Spiegel, a Polish teenager, writing in her diary exactly 80 years ago today. But her everyday worries would soon encompass the horrors of being forced to live a Nazi-controlled Jewish ghetto. Renia has been hailed as one of the ‘new voices of the holocaust’, and her diary has recently been celebrated by The Smithsonian.

Renia was born in 1924, in Uhryńkowce, Tarnopol province, then part of Poland now in Ukraine. She had one younger sister, Ariana, who became a child star actress (the ‘Polish Shirley Temple’). By 1939, Renia and Ariana were living with their grandparents in Przemyśl, and studying at the local Gymnasium, where Renia contributed poems to the school magazine. Following the start of the Second World War and Germany’s invasion of Poland, the family were initially located in city’s Soviet zone, but when the Germans overran the city, they became confined to a Jewish ghetto. Renia was shot dead on the street shortly after her 18th birthday on 30 July 1942.

Ariana and her mother survived the war and moved to the US. In the 1950s, Zygmunt Schwarzer, who had been Renia’s boyfriend, and who had survived several concentration camps, gave them a diary that Renia had kept from January 1939 until her death. The diary remained untouched for decades, until, very recently, Ariana’s daughter, Alexandra, had it translated. Subsequently, she showed it to the documentary film-maker Tomasz Magierski who then planned to make a film about Renia; he also helped to have the diary published in Poland.

The recently-founded Renia Spiegel Foundation describes the diary as follows: ‘This nearly seven hundred-page journal by Renia Spiegel, which spans the years 1939 to the summer of 1942, presents a powerful insight into the life of a young woman, whose life was tragically cut short shy of her eighteenth birthday. The diary is an eyewitness account of the horrors of day-to-day life during the Nazi occupation. There is incredible maturity in her observations and insights. Her account of her personal life is poignant, heart breaking, and often amusing with her expression of adolescent infatuation exposing the raw emotion of a teenager. This powerful diary is not only a primary historical source of the Holocaust, but also a true and outstanding work of literature.’

Renia and her diary received international attention when, last November (2018), the Smithsonian published both a biographical article about her and substantial extracts from the diary. The Times of Israel and The Guardian also have substantial articles on the diary, with extracts. St Martins Press (Macmillan) in the US and Ebury Press (Penguin) in the UK (see The Bookseller) are due to publish the English translation later this year as Renia’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of the Holocaust. See also the Renia Spiegel Facebook page.

31 January 1939
‘Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. Somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human being could ever be that kind of friend.

Today, my dear diary, is the beginning of our deep friendship. Who knows how long it will last? It might even continue until the end of our lives.

In any case, I promise to always be honest with you. In return, you’ll listen to my thoughts and concerns, but you’ll remain silent like an enchanted book, locked up with an enchanted key and hidden in an enchanted castle. You will not betray me.’

15 July 1942
‘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.

Oh, Great One, give us health and strength. Let us live. Hope is shriveling so fast. There are fragrant flowers in front of the house, but who needs flowers? And Zygmunt - I saw him from a distance today, but he hasn’t come over yet. Lord, please protect his dear head. But why can’t I cuddle up next to him? God, let me hug my dear mamma.’

16 July 1942
‘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 so very sad. My heart is seized with terror.

I missed Zygus so much today. I thought about him all the time. I’ve longed so much for his caresses, nobody knows how much. After all, we face such a terrible situation. You will help me, Bulus and God.’

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