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Renia Spiegel's Diary Survived The Holocaust. People Are Finally Reading It

Renia Spiegel (left) and her younger sister, now known as Elizabeth Bellak, wade in the Dniester River around 1935. The photo can be seen on the cover of the published edition of <em>Renia's Diary.</em>
Courtesy of Elizabeth Bellak
St. Martin's Press
Renia Spiegel (left) and her younger sister, now known as Elizabeth Bellak, wade in the Dniester River around 1935. The photo can be seen on the cover of the published edition of Renia's Diary.

A young Jewish girl begins a diary just as World War II is about to break out in Europe. She records the details of her daily life, but more and more, the war takes over. Eventually, the diary comes to a heartbreaking end.

In this case, it is not the story of Anne Frank. This is Renia's Diary, a journal that spent decades stored away in a safe deposit box. Now it's being published with help from Renia's niece and sister.

For a long time, Elizabeth Bellak didn't even know that her older sister Renata Spiegel had kept a diary as a teenager in Poland. Then one day, her sister's old boyfriend Zygmunt showed up in New York.

"Suddenly in the '50s, somehow Zygmunt appeared in our apartment," Bellak says. "We have no idea where he got the diary ... and my mother was totally shocked, and never asked him who saved it."

Elizabeth and Renata — Renia, as she was known — had been separated from their mother during the war. Though Elizabeth and her mother made it out of Poland and settled in New York, Renia was shot to death by the Nazis.

Elizabeth says she started to read and translate the diary, but didn't get very far — the task proved too painful. Her mother never read it either.

"She was too emotionally stricken to read it," Elizabeth Bellak says. "She just put it in the vault and didn't think about it, 'cause she was always heartbroken about my sister."

Alexandra Bellak is Elizabeth's daughter. She grew up knowing about the diary, but after her grandmother died, her own mother also kept it locked away. Alexandra says that as she got older, she was more and more curious about her aunt and the diary.

"My name is Alexandra Renata, so I'm named after this mysterious woman I was never able to meet because she was brutally killed by the Nazis," she says. "And I wanted to learn about my past and heritage and background, and thought: Well, if I could read this diary, maybe I'll unearth some things from my past that I would like to know about."

She got the diary from its hiding place and asked a graduate student in Poland to translate it for her. When she read it, Alexandra was stunned.

"It's the depiction of a wonderful, intelligent, vibrant girl who showed great courage in dire circumstances," she says. "And it's hard to confront."

Alexandra's aunt turned out to be an aspiring writer and a gifted poet. The poems and diary entries reveal a young girl falling in love, missing her mother, afraid that she won't survive the war. In one of her poems, Renia expresses her yearning to be with her mother again.

At the beginning of the war, the town where Renia lived with her grandparents was occupied by the Soviet Union. Renia's mother was in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and couldn't get to her children.

Alexandra Bellak says her aunt's world comes to life as the diary shifts between the daily concerns of a teenage girl and the moments when war intrudes.

"I do think that her gift as a writer is remarkable," she says. "Just through the simplicity and naturalness, you can find a connection with her as a young teenager whose questions and challenges are as relevant today, really, as ever. So yes ... from the very mundane, everyday issues that she was facing to the terrible evil around her, that comes through in the diary."

All the while, she is falling in love with Zygmunt, the boy who survives the war and later brings the diary to her family. In one entry, she describes their first kiss.

Shortly after her first kiss, the Nazis took control of the town, and life became much worse for the Jews who lived there, according to Elizabeth Bellak.

"And she doesn't only write about poetry and love, but she also writes about the misery of the war, about the soldiers, about the horrors, what's going on," she says. "And my sister can explain a bit how awful it was, but also how life could be so beautiful."

Elizabeth and her daughter Alexandra are thrilled that Renia's Diary has been published. They say it's a story that needs to be heard, now more than ever.

"We have to educate each other, so we don't repeat the same types of racism and prejudice and hate that lead to active violence," Alexandra Bellak says.

"I'm very happy too because I'm looking for tolerance," Elizabeth Bellak says. "You know, if some people weren't tolerant, I wouldn't be here today."

For the published edition, Elizabeth Bellak wrote a commentary that accompanies her sister's diary — which she finally read, decades after the end of the war.

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.