Less than two weeks after the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, nearly 400 people came to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this month to hear a discussion about Renia Spiegel, a Polish Jewish teenager who was killed by Nazis in 1942. The event was co-hosted by Smithsonian magazine, where we published the first-ever English translation of Renia’s diary in our November issue.
Smithsonian’s chief operating officer and Pittsburgh native Albert Horvath opened the panel with a word on the recent rise of anti-Semitism across the globe. “Reading Renia’s dramatic and moving diary you realize how quickly the world we think we know can completely change,” Horvath said. “We never expected our magazines to reach mailboxes the very same weekend as the worst attack against Jews in American history.”
The panel for 80 Years After Kristallnacht: Diarists of the Holocaust included Renia’s sister, Elizabeth Bellak, her niece, Alexandra Bellak and expert in young wartime diarists, Alexandra Zapruder.
Over three years and 700 pages, Renia documented in her diary the ways history encroached on and transformed her teenage life. As Germany occupied her country and as her world was torn apart, Renia sought refuge in her diary’s pages, which include a striking combination of adolescent innocence and existential worries for her family.
“When you read a diary and then another and another, you realize what we all know about ourselves and about our own time,” Zapruder said. “That we have completely unique voices and perspectives, a totally unique way of thinking about the world and expressing our lives as we live them.”
With the diary’s new translation, Alexandra, Renia’s niece, hopes many more will fall under “Renia’s spell.” Yet she maintains a touch of guilt for spreading what Renia may have wanted to be her private thoughts. This sense of invasion is familiar to Zapruder, who wrote on the diaries of several other children of genocide and war for Smithsonian. There is no easy answer to Bellak’s feeling, but Zapruder has found what she believes to be an ethical calculus.
“No one wants to be forgotten, we all want to believe that it mattered that we lived in this world, and that we contributed something to it,” she said. “For those people whose lives were taken from them in such a brutal and unjust way, especially so young, to be able to preserve that memory and share it, I think is an act of really profound humanity.”
Zapruder knows firsthand that recording personal history can give vulnerable populations agency. She works in U.S. ESL classes, where children who have recently immigrated from Central America are shocked by how diaries like Renia’s resonate with their journeys, fears and present challenges. “Reading these diaries, they’re inspired to believe they have something to say that can contribute to the historical record,” Zapruder said.
When Elizabeth arrived in America with her mother in 1946, she thought she had found a home. “Life became normal,” she said, adding, “We hope it stays that way, because it’s changing again.”
Elizabeth has not read her sister’s diary in full. She is not sure her mother did either before her death in 1969. Yet Elizabeth hopes that people gain something from reading Renia’s words. “Maybe people will read [it],” she said. “And maybe they will accept tolerance in the world. Because that, I think, is the most important thing we can find, and it’s difficult to find.”