Why Some Call Re­nia Spiegel The ‘Pol­ish Anne Frank’

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Alex Ulam

“Lis­ten! Lis­ten to me and un­der­stand. Some kind of fever took over the city. The vi­sion of the ghetto, al­ready for­got­ten by ev­ery­body, has re­turned. And it is even more dread­ful than be­fore, be­cause it knocks on the doors of pet­ri­fied hearts and it is ruth­less, it doesn’t want to go away.”

In May 1942, 18-year-old Re­nia Spiegel was de­scrib­ing her ter­ror of a ghetto the Nazis were es­tab­lish­ing in Prze­myśl, a city in south­east­ern Poland where 17,600 Jews were mur­dered. Spiegel’s nearly 700-page di­ary, re­cently pub­lished in Pol­ish, also re­counts her kiss­ing her first love only hours be­fore the Ger­mans in­vaded.

Spiegel and the par­ents of her boyfriend Zyg­munt Sch­warzer were shot in the street by the Nazis in July 1942 af­ter they were dis­cov­ered hid­ing in an at­tic out­side the ghetto. Zyg­munt added an en­try to Re­nia’s di­ary on July 31st, 1942 about their killing: “Three shots! Three lives lost! It hap­pened last night at 10:30 pm. Fate has de­cided to take my dear­est ones away from me.”

Zyg­munt sur­vived Auschwitz and Ber­gen-Belsen. Af­ter the war, he stud­ied medicine at the Univer­sity of Hei­del­berg in Ger­many and upon grad­u­at­ing moved to the United States where he be­came a pe­di­a­tri­cian. In the 1950s, a friend vis­it­ing New York from Prze­myśl gave him Re­nia’s di­ary, which was made of seven school books sewn to­gether. Zyg­munt brought the di­ary back to New York and gave it to Re­nia’s mother Róża Maria Leszczyńska.

Re­nia’s di­ary de­scribes life in wartime Prze­myśl, which was di­vided be­tween the Sovi­ets and the Nazis at the San River, which runs through the city. Be­fore 1941, when the Nazis launched Op­er­a­tion Bar­barosa and in­vaded the Rus­sian sec­tion of Prze­myśl, most of the Jews lived on the Soviet oc­cu­pied east­ern side of the city.

When the ghetto was es­tab­lished in July 1942, Re­nia and her sis­ter Ari­ana were forced to move there with their grand­par­ents. How­ever, af­ter sev­eral weeks in the ghetto, Zyg­munt, who had a work pass, was able to spirit both sis­ters out. He moved Re­nia to the house of his un­cle Sa­muel Goliger, who, be­cause of his sta­tus at a Ju­den­rat of­fi­cial, was al­lowed to live out­side the ghetto.

Sev­eral days later, the SS marched on the ghetto in­tend­ing to launch their first ma­jor liq­ui­da­tion of the Jews. How­ever, the Wehrma­cht under the com­mand of an of­fi­cer named Al­bert Bat­tel, who was posthu­mously rec­og­nized as Righteous Among Na­tions by the state of Is­rael, threat­ened to open fire on the SS troops un­less they with­drew. This stand­off bought time for Bat­tel to shel­ter a large num­ber of Jews from de­por­ta­tion in army bar­racks.

Zyg­munt hid Re­nia with his par­ents in a gar­ret in the town while Ari­ana was taken to War­saw by a Pol­ish gen­tile named

Lu­domir Leszczyn­ski and re­united with her mother who was pass­ing as a Pole and work­ing in a ho­tel crawl­ing with Wer­ma­cht of­fi­cers.

In Prze­myśl, how­ever, Re­nia’s hid­ing place was ex­posed by an in­former, and the Nazis ex­e­cuted her and Zyg­munt’s par­ents in the street, only a day af­ter Ari­ana had es­caped from the Ghetto.

“She was griev­ing all of the time about my sis­ter,” Ari­ana Elz­bi­eta Bel­lak says of her mother.

Bel­lak, who is 87 and is cur­rently in pos­ses­sion of the di­ary, was a child film star called Ari­anka in in­ter­war Poland and was re­ferred to as the Pol­ish Shirley Tem­ple. In 1938, she ap­peared in two Pol­ish films “Ge­henna,” di­rected by Michał Waszyn­ski and “Gran­ica,” di­rected by Jóżef Le­jtes.

Bel­lak still re­tains her star power. She is a pe­tite woman with a boom­ing voice and intense blue eyes heav­ily lined with mas­cara. She was dressed in a white lace fringed blouse with ele­gant gold ear­rings on the sunny Oc­to­ber af­ter­noon when I vis­ited her. Her apart­ment in Man­hat­tan’s Flat­iron District where she has lived for thirty-six years is dec­o­rated with pho­to­graphs of rel­a­tives from pre­war era in Poland, in­clud­ing a large sepia-toned blowup of her sis­ter as a beam­ing teenager with her hair tied back in a bun.

As a child, Bel­lak says, she was not even aware of her sis­ter’s di­ary’s ex­is­tence. “Re­nia wrote, ‘I want a friend that keeps my se­crets and no­body is sup­posed to know,’” Bel­lak told me.

For decades, Ari­ana kept Re­nia’s di­ary to her­self, but at the urg­ing of her daugh­ter Alexan­dra, she showed it to To­masz Magierski, a Pol­ish- Amer­i­can doc­u­men­tary film­maker. Bel­lak met Magierski sev­eral years ago at the Pol­ish Con­sulate Gen­eral in New York, where he was screen­ing “Blinky & Me,” a doc­u­men­tary he made about a Pol­ish born Aus­tralian an­i­ma­tor Yo­ram Gross who sur­vived the Holo­caust. Magierski, who lives on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side, said dur­ing an in­ter­view that he en­dured sev­eral sleep­less nights be­fore fin­ish­ing the di­ary. Since then he has been on a mis­sion to res­cue its author from ob­scu­rity.

Magierski has en­gaged in all man­ner of ac­tiv­i­ties to call at­ten­tion to Re­nia’s life. With Bel­lak and her daugh­ter, he started the Re­nia Spiegel Foun­da­tion to pre­serve and pro­mote the teenage writer’s legacy. He is also work­ing to get a for­mer syn­a­gogue in Prze­myśl, turned into a mu­seum ded­i­cated to Spiegel’s life. Through the Spiegel foun­da­tion he has pub­lished the di­ary in Pol­ish and is get­ting it trans­lated into English. In ad­di­tion, the foun­da­tion has or­ga­nized an aca­demic con­fer­ence about the di­ary at the Mu­seum of Pol­ish Jews in War­saw. Magierski also has cir­cu­lated Re­nia’s di­ary among schol­ars such as Anna Fra­jlich-Za­jac, se­nior lec­turer emerita in Slavic Lan­guage at Columbia Univer­sity, who wrote of it, “This pow­er­ful di­ary is not only a pri­mary his­tor­i­cal source of the Holo­caust, but also a true and out­stand­ing work of lit­er­a­ture.”

Cur­rently, Magierski says he is mak­ing what he terms a “creative doc­u­men­tary” based upon Re­nia’s life. “I want to show what she would be like if she sur­vived,” he said one evening over a glass of wine at his roof top ter­race on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side. He showed scenes from the film, which fea­ture his­tor­i­cal footage of Prze­myśl and ac­tresses in con­tem­po­rary garb recit­ing Re­nia’s po­etry as the cam­era pans around the ver­dant ru­ral land­scape near Prze­myśl. For the film, Magierski has sleuthed through­out Poland for phys­i­cal traces of the Spiegel sis­ters’ lives. One such ob­ject is a hand-painted card­board box that he said most likely orig­i­nally en­closed the di­ary, which he ob­tained in Prze­myśl from a child­hood friend of Ari­ana’s.

“She could have be­come a great writer,” Magierski said. “She did not have this chance be­cause she was killed.”

Read­ing Spiegel’s di­ary en­tries, it’s clear that she wanted peo­ple to know what hap­pened to her. “Re­mem­ber this day; re­mem­ber it well, you will tell gen­er­a­tions to come about it one day,” she wrote in one of her last en­tries on July 15th, 1942, “To­day at 8 o’clock 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.”

COUR­TESY OF TO­MASZ MAGIERSKI

MUR­DERED BY THE NAZIS: Re­nia Spiegel was shot only days af­ter her sis­ter es­caped the Ghetto.

AN OUT­STAND­ING WORK: Pub­lished in Pol­ish, Spiegel’s di­ary is be­ing trans­lated into English.

COUR­TESY OF TO­MASZ MAGIERSKI

THE POL­ISH SHIRLEY TEM­PLE: The child star Ari­anka in 1937 and with her daugh­ter in 2017.

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