Thursday 24 October 2019

Renia's Diary: Holocaust hopes of teenage girl rise out of the darkness

Renia's poignant diary is a bitter-sweet account of a life and a spirit the Nazis couldn't crush
Renia's poignant diary is a bitter-sweet account of a life and a spirit the Nazis couldn't crush

Hilary A White

The phenomenon of the Holocaust memoir was so prevalent after the end of World War II that by the 1960s there were thousands in print to the point that publishers had begun turning them down due to saturation.

In her introduction here, noted Holocaust academic Deborah Lipstadt argues that material such as this intimate journal belonging to a teenage girl that survived where its author did not, are special because they offer us a compelling emotional immediacy that is not sculpted with the benefit of hindsight. In other words, it was embarked upon without any knowledge of what was to come.

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Renia's Diary certainly fits that bill.

Begun in January 1939, by 14-year-old Renia Spiegel, the diary is many things to the young Jewish girl living with her grandparents in the town of Przemysl in south-eastern Poland.

It was not uncommon for fathers to work in distant locations but Renia must also contend without her mother, who was based in Warsaw to manage the career of her younger sister Ariana, a famed child star considered the "Polish Shirley Temple".

In September of that year, the German and Russian armies invaded and divided Poland in half.

Przemysl itself straddled a river on this dividing line, cleaving it in two as well and cutting Renia's mother off from her and Ariana (who was back visiting for holidays).

The diary becomes a friend and safe space for this young confused girl missing her mother desperately while the world around her blackens.

Although we feel the creeping unrest in Renia's surroundings - talk of soldiers throughout the streets, late night mass evictions, the introduction of armbands, the confiscation of fur coats, rising panic - they remain on the fringes, a remark here and there.

The four years of entries and poems (rendered into English with brilliance by translators Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz) printed in their entirety 70 years after the fact are concerned only with the confusing business of being a teenage girl managing the first flutters of love.

Even though much of it reads like a tumbling and at times impulsive litany of "he loves me, he loves me not", there is something remarkably empowering (a hugely misused word these days) about witnessing her most intimate feelings.

It is as though the murderous machine of Hitler's vision and the barbarity being brought upon her people couldn't silence the integrity of her voice, that vigorous inner discussion that wanted to get on with pining over things and people, wondering what was what, who fancied her and who she fancied in kind.

There was probably an unwritten aspiration among the butchers of that era that such spirit would be broken en route to extermination.

Although increasingly rocked as things close in on her and her loved ones, Renia's reason for turning to her diary was not necessarily to tremble in terror at what was happening around her.

She was turning up to sort out the confusions and headaches of young love and those formative years where hormones and inbetween-ism can make even a day at school seem like algebra itself.

At the heart of the whole document is the human need to write and to relate. An excellent and determined school pupil, Renia emerges as a poet of real lyricism and emotional heft, which makes her demise all the more tragic.

Writing is where she finds solace, a place that offers her the freedom to be giddy, petulant, melancholic, angry, nostalgic and ebullient.

At a time when so much was at stake and just being who you were carried with it deadly risks, personal writing, alone with a notebook and pen, meant the construction and the preservation of a world that was all hers.

It was, at last, a little piece of control that she was wresting back from wartime. In one entry, she tells the diary "how precious you are to me" and how she literally hugged it to her heart during a missile strike one night.

"Because, my dear diary, what is my life?! It's just a handful of ashes of the past and some shells of the present. I hold them in my hand and I say, 'What is bad'll fly away, what is good'll stay'. And I blow. And what? All the shells and specks of ash fly away and all that is left is the whitish dust of temporary contentment such as sitting in a theatre, getting a good school report, a letter from Mum…"

This is a bittersweet refresher course that such first-hand accounts are so necessary because the facts and figures of history are suddenly scattered aside and the real toll of that genocide and all others is illuminated.

And as you read on beyond the final entry (just before an 18-year-old Renia and her grandparents are discovered hiding in an attic and shot), we have an epilogue by Ariana (who now goes by Elizabeth Bellak, and who through a series of fortunate strokes found safe passage out of Poland and Germany to America), you come to see what took place in order to ensure this diary's safety and what it took to get it airborne after 70 years.

The sacrifice and forethought by Zygmunt, Renia's lover (who somehow managed to avoid the death camps through guile and quick wits), to save this thick, blue-lined notebook, is an epic in itself.

After finally finding its way into the hands of Ariana, the tenderness and innocence of these pages ended up calcifying in those who knew and loved Renia so that the pain of what happened to her washed away over the decades and all that remained was a determination for her song to carry up out of the darkness of history.

Non-fiCtion

Renia's Diary

Renia Spiegel

Ebury Press, 16.99

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