You might imagine that life for a Jewish teenager in Poland during World War II, under Soviet Communist and Nazi German rule, would be gloomy. And you’d be right, mostly.
But the long-hidden holocaust diary of Renia Springer—to be published in English by St. Martin’s Press in 2019, and excerpted by the Smithsonian—reveals that, even as the world burns around her, a teenage girl remains concerned with boys and school and muses about whether it’s better to be famous or happy.
Eighty years ago today—on the night of November 9, 1938—violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and then Czechoslovakia after a 17-year old Polish Jew shot a German foreign official over the deportation of his family. For 48 hours, violent mobs destroyed hundreds of synagogues, Jewish businesses, schools, and homes, murdered 91 Jews, and rounded up 30,000 men to be sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials called the events Kristallnacht, meaning “Crystal Night” or “The Night of Broken Glass.”
Renia Spiegel’s diary begins on January 31, 1939, just a few months later. At the time, she is a 15-year-old in Przemysl, Poland. The nation is divided between German and Soviet rule. Renia is living with her grandparents in the rural town while her mother is stuck in Warsaw, which is Nazi territory, and her father guards the family farm. Her first journal entry describes her old life:
I used to live in a beautiful manor house on the Dniester River. I loved it there. There were storks on old linden trees. Apples glistened in the orchard, and I had a garden with neat, charming rows of flowers. But those days will never return…Now I live in Przemysl, at my grandmother’s house. But the truth is, I have no real home. That’s why sometimes I get so sad that I have to cry…But I also have joyous moments, and there are so many of them. So many!
Unlike Anne Frank, who documented her life in hiding in Amsterdam, Renia, for three years until her death at 18, lives aboveground, observing the war firsthand. That first winter, she attends school and plans parties, discussing her best friend and their mutual crush on a teacher in the diary. She documents her sister’s hopes to become a movie star and her own everyday observations. Renia writes:
It’s raining today. On rainy days, I stand by the window and count the tears trickling down the windowpane…People might laugh at me, but sometimes I think inanimate objects can talk. Actually, they’re not inanimate at all. They have souls, just like people. Sometimes I think the water in the drainpipes giggles. Other people call this giggle different names, but it never even crosses their minds that it’s just that: a giggle.
The spring is more grim for Renia and for Europe. The diary takes a more serious turn. On April 2, 1939, she writes, “I’m learning French now and if there’s no war I might go to France. I was supposed to go before, but Hitler took over Austria, then Czechoslovakia, and who knows what he’ll do next. In a way, he’s affecting my life, too.”
By the fall, there’s no more question that Hitler is a force in Renia’s life. She writes on Sept. 6, “War has broken out! Since last week, Poland has been fighting with Germany. England and France also declared war on Hitler and surrounded him on three sides. But he isn’t sitting idly.”
Renia’s journal describes the local war efforts. She helps dig air-raid trenches, sews gas masks, takes shifts serving tea to soldiers and collecting food for them. “In a word, I’m fighting alongside the rest of the Polish nation,” she writes. “I’m fighting and I’ll win!”
Four days later, she is much less hopeful. Przemysl is attacked and Renia, her sister, and grandfather flee the burning city in the middle of the night on foot. They escape to Lwow, which is soon invaded by Russian soldiers. In Lwow, Renia waits in long lines for bread and wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of air-raid sirens.
By October, she’s back in Przemsyl and writes, “Those Russians are such cute boys (though not all of them). One of them was determined to marry me.” The following month, Renia starts having a crush on a schoolmate and the journal is full of teenage angst. She worries that she doesn’t know how to flirt.
One year after the journal begins, in January 1940, Renia declares that she hates everything and lives in fear of violence and searches. By springtime, life takes an even more terrifying turn. She writes:
Terrible things have been happening. There were 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. There was terrible screaming at school. Girls were crying. 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 yet perished.”
Despite this, she confides to her journal, “About that Holender boy I mentioned: I fell in love, I chased him like a madwoman, but he was interested in some girl named Basia.”
Renia’s journal is full of these seeming contradictions. She alternates seamlessly between the political and personal because that is the story of her life. One moment, she’s a smitten teen, on the other, an endangered species.
On June 26, 1941, Renia admits, “I’m weak with fear. War again, war between Russia and Germany. The Germans were here, then they retreated…I want to live so badly…You saved me before, save me now. God, thank you for saving me.”
Ultimately, her prayers go unanswered. On July 14, 1942, Renia is forced to move to the Jewish ghetto in Przemysl. She writes:
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.
On the last day of her life, July 30, 1942, just after her 18th birthday, Renia repeats her prayer, writing, “Hear, O, Israel, save us, help us.” She is executed that night. The last lines in the journal are written by her boyfriend, Zygmunt Schwarzer, who writes of Renia’s death and that of his parents, “Three shots! Three lives lost! All I can hear are shots, shots.”
Schwarzer survived concentration camps and the war and eventually moved to the US. He gave Renia’s journal to her mother and sister, who also survived and emigrated to the US, in the 1950s. They refused to read it.
But Renia’s niece finally convinced her mother a few years ago that the 700-page diary is an important record, all the more so in a time when few survivors of that war remain. Soon, the diary will be released in English. It is a simultaneously harrowing and heartening account, a timely and poignant reminder to never forget.