It’s a tragic story. Young love torn apart by evil. Two children in over their heads, as the big bad world crushes their romance before it can truly blossom. It sounds like a Hollywood movie starring some big name starlet in an Oscar-worthy role, but it isn’t. It’s the story of Renia Spiegel, who was just 18-years old when the Nazis arrived in Poland.
She’s become known as “Poland’s Anne Frank,” because her uncovered personal diary offers a glimpse into daily life under Nazi occupation. Her diary begins in 1939, a full eight months prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland, and by the time she had finished writing it in 1942, shortly before being shot, it was almost 700 pages long. Renia managed to escape the initial wave of Nazi searches, which captured 22,000 Jews for deportation to death camps, by hiding in an attic on the outskirts of the Jewish ghetto.
Although the diary would resurface twenty years later, in the 1960s, it would remain a secret until only a few years ago. Now her younger sister, Elizabeth Bellak, aged 87, is pushing for its publication in English. It has since been published in Poland and a documentary is on the way. In Poland, the diary has inspired a national poetry competition.
In an entry dated April 2, 1939, Renia writes about her studies in French and her fervent desire to go to France, and this is the first appearance of her love for a student named Zygmunt Schwarzer. This was only a few short months before the Nazis arrived to turn their dream into a nightmare.
Even despite the horrors of Nazi persecution, their first kiss happened on June 20, 1941, which coincided with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, and by 1942, their relationship had blossomed even further.
“Now I know what the word ecstasy means. I almost understand it. It is indescribable; it is something that is the best, which only two loving creatures can do. And for the first time I felt this longing to become one, to be one body and to feel more,” Renia wrote.
Yet, just days later, the war arrived on Renia’s doorstep, bringing all of its horror and desperation with it.
“There is killing, murder. God, for the umpteenth time I humble myself in front of you, help us, save us! God, let us live, I beg you. I had so little of life; my life has been so petty, so unimportant, and so small. Today I worry about being ugly, tomorrow I might stop thinking forever.”
Next, Zygmunt escaped the ghetto with Renia and her sister, and put her sister into the care of a Christian family, while Renia hid with Zygmunt’s parents in the attic of his uncle’s building. Zygmunt’s uncle, however, was a member of the Judenrat, who were given authority by the Nazis to oversee the ghettos in exchange for the privilege of not having to live in them. Despite all of her pleas to God to save her, she was rounded up on July 30, 1942, and executed by the Nazis.
Zygmunt arrived a day later, to discover that the love of his life had been killed. He uncovered her diary in the attic of his uncle’s home and added his own heartbreaking postscript.
“Three shots! Three lives lost! It happened last night at 10:30 p.m. Fate has decided to take my dearest ones away from me. My life is done. All I can hear are shots, shots… Shots! My dearest Renia, the last chapter of your diary is complete.”
Together, Zygmunt, Bellak and her mother emigrated to New York and handed the diary to Manhattan film-maker Tomasz Magierski, who during the course of his research could not come to a conclusion regarding who turned her in.
“It’s an enigma,” he said. “We’re not sure if it was the Polish neighbors or members of the Judenrat who gave them up.”