JEWISH schoolgirl Renia Spiegel’s heart raced as the handsome, curly-haired boy pulled her close and kissed her, his green eyes barely visible in the moonlight.
It was June 20, 1941, in Poland and her dream had just come true. After months of stolen glances and gentle teasing, she was finally sharing her first kiss with her crush, Zygmunt Schwarzer.
Yet as the teen sweethearts embraced that dark summer’s night, they had no idea their love affair was about to play out against the backdrop of one of history’s biggest horrors, the Holocaust.
And nor did they realise it would end in the worst type of heartbreak: murder. For just a year after their shy kiss, Renia was found hiding in an attic by the Nazis and shot dead aged 18.
She would have been among the millions of unknown faces executed by Hitler’s forces in World War Two – had it not been for her secret diary, which Zygmunt kept safe after her death.
Now, more than 70 years on, Renia’s diary has been released for the first time, documenting how two teens fell deeply in love as bloody war raged around them in occupied Poland.
It has been compared to the famous, movingly honest diary of Anne Frank.
Romance in the shadow of war
“I forget what I want to forget,” Renia writes 12 days before her death, after being locked up inside a Jewish ghetto, segregated from the rest of the world.
“That I live in the ghetto, that I have so many worries, that I feel lonely and poor, that Z [Zygmunt] is a stranger to me, that despite all my longing I cannot get closer to him.
“It’s not a relationship that other couples have, after all.”
A serene country upbringing
Growing up in a country house in the Polish town of Stavky, Renia could have never imagined a single bullet would one day deny her of her first love – and her future.
In 1938, she moved to Przemyśl to live with her grandparents while her mum promoted her little sister Ariana – a successful child actor dubbed “Poland’s Shirley Temple” – in Warsaw.
And it was in this small, south-eastern city that she began her diary.
“Why did I decide to start my diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own?” Renia, then 14, pens on January 31, 1939.
“No! I just want a friend.”
From school crushes to bombing raids
For the next seven months, Renia’s entries are filled with typical teenage musings – from crushes on her teachers and fallouts with pals to how much she misses her mum.
Yet by August, they’ve taken on a more urgent tone.
Renia describes how Polish forces are secretly mobilising, as the Russians have signed a treaty with the Germans. Families are stockpiling food, she says, waiting for war.
Then in September, it happens: Germany invades Poland from the west.
As Nazi planes screech overhead, raining down bombs on cities, Renia bravely joins other children, parents and soldiers desperately fighting to save their country.
“I’ve been taking part in female military training – digging air-raid trenches, sewing gas masks…” she writes on September 6, five days after the invasion.
“In a word, I’m fighting alongside the rest of the Polish nation. I’m fighting and I’ll win!”
Forced to flee her hometown
But after Przemyśl is attacked, Renia is forced to flee the blazing city in the middle of the night, along with her Grandpa and Ariana – who’s been staying with them for the summer break.
Her Granny stays behind in Przemyśl.
The trio trek 60 miles on foot to Lwów, where Renia writes: “We’ve been spending all day in a bunker, a cellar, listening to the terrible whistling of bullets and explosions of bombs.”
On September 17, the Soviet Union invades Poland from the east. And by the end of the month, after heavy bombing and with thousands dead, the nation is forced to surrender.
“Polish soldiers were disarmed in the streets,” Renia pens. “Some, with tears in their eyes, just dropped their bayonets to the ground and watched the Russians break their rifles.”
Back in Przemyśl, the teenager suddenly finds herself cut off from her mother.
Her hometown is now under the control of Soviet forces, while Warsaw – where her mum still resides – is occupied by the Germans. And she and Ariana aren’t allowed to cross the River San between the two.
“Wouldn’t it be better to die?”
Fast forward to June 17, 1940, and Renia is about to turn 16. But her birthday is overshadowed by the fall of West Europe – and she questions: “Wouldn’t it be better to die?”
Yet amid her despair, light emerges in the shape of Zygmunt, a Jewish lad two years her senior who is “only just slightly naughty, not like other boys, who are vulgar”.
They sit opposite each other at a local Russian club, staring at each other.
“As soon as I turned my eyes away from him, I could feel his eyes on me,” Renia writes on October 19.
Her unexpected first kiss
But it’s not until the next summer that the pair finally share a kiss.
“The sun had set and the stars started to emerge, and the moon floated up, and we sat next to each other and talked… When we left, it was dark; we couldn’t find the way,” Renia writes.
“We got lost, yes, we got doubly lost, or rather – only just found ourselves. It was all so sudden and unexpected and sweet and intimidating. I was at a loss for words and terribly mixed up.
“He said, ‘Renuśka, give me a kiss,’ and before I knew it, it happened… He wanted more later, but I couldn’t, I was shaking all over.”
Jews brutally beaten in the street
Days later, Hitler invades Russia and Nazis descend on Renia’s hometown, forcing all Jews over the age of 12 to wear white armbands with the blue Star of David on.
Now, when Renia and Zygmunt walk the streets together, they’re unsure if they’ll live.
Often, they pass unspeakable horrors.
“Yesterday I saw Jews being beaten,” Renia writes on July 28, 1941.
“Some monstrous Ukrainian in a German uniform hit every one he met.”
Yet despite her young age, Renia feels sorry for any wounded German soldiers passing by – who are “far away from their homeland, mother, wife, perhaps children”.
Remarkably, amid the devastation, Renia and Zygmunt’s romance survives. Like most teen couples, they have ups and downs, but their intense love doesn’t waver.
And on June 2, 1942, Renia hints at wanting to become more intimate with her boyfriend.
“For the first time, I felt this longing to become one, to be one body and… well… to feel more, I could say. To bite and kiss and squeeze until blood shows,” she writes.
On Renia’s 18th birthday, Zygmunt, an aspiring doctor, gifts her two gingerbread hearts.
Segregated from the world
But that July, Renia’s world is turned upside down again. She, Ariana and their grandparents are given 24 hours to leave their home and move into a Jewish ghetto.
“Since 8 o’clock today we have been shut away in the ghetto. I live here now,” Renia writes on July 15, now living behind a barbed wire fence. “The world is separated from me and I’m separated from the world.”
For those in the ghetto, the only way to avoid a concentration camp or execution is to get a work stamp from the Gestapo. But while Zygmunt has a stamp, Renia has not.
As the Nazis pile Jews into trucks and take them to a forest, where they’re shot in the neck and buried in a mass grave, Renia seems to sense the end is nearing.
Her final diary entry, on July 25, reads: “My dear Diary, my good, beloved friend! We have been through such terrible times together and now the worst moment is upon us.”
She then hands the journal over to Zygmunt, the only one who knows of its existence.
But refusing to let Renia go to a violent death, Zygmunt risks his own life to smuggle his girlfriend and his parents into the attic of his uncle’s home, right under the Nazis’ noses.
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He hopes he’s done enough to save them. Yet on July 30, his dreams – and heart – are shattered when the trio are found hiding in the attic by the Nazis and gunned down.
Now alone, racked with grief, he writes a final, heartbreaking entry in Renia’s diary.
“Three shots! Three lives lost! It happened last night at 10.30pm,” Zygmunt pens.
“Fate decided to take my dearest ones away from me. My life is over. All I can hear are shots, shots… shots. My dearest Renusia, the last chapter of your diary is complete.”
How Renia's secret diary survived the Holocaust
ASPIRING doctor Zygmunt was the only person Renia ever shared her secret diary with – and without him, it would have never been released.
Before she went into hiding, Renia left her diary – packed with 700 pages of thoughts, feelings and poetry – with her boyfriend.
And it was Zygmunt who, days later, wrote its final, grief-stricken post after learning Renia had been shot dead by Nazi soldiers.
Not long after, the young man was sent away to the notorious Auschwitz death camp. But before he went, he passed the diary to a mystery pal for safekeeping.
Zygmunt fortunately survived the concentration camp – despite at least one million other men, women and children losing their lives, many of whom were gassed to death.
He went on to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor, working in the US Army. While in America, Renia’s diary was returned to him.
In the early 1950s, Zygmunt took the journal to New York and delivered it to Renia’s sister and mum, who both survived the Holocaust. They had no idea it had even existed.
“My mum and I broke down in tears,” recalls sister Ariana, now 88 and going by the name Elizabeth Bellak.
When her mum died from cancer in November 1969, Elizabeth locked up Renia’s diary in a safety deposit box. Traumatised by the horrors she’d endured in her past, she didn’t want to think about the war.
The diary lay, undisturbed, in the safe at a Chase Bank in Manhattan for nearly 50 years, before being retrieved by Elizabeth’s grown-up daughter, Alexandra.
Realising its significance as a work of history and literature, Alexandra had it translated into English and published. Now, her sister’s words can be read by millions.
But sadly, one person who will never read them again is Zygmunt, who died in April 1992.
Despite marrying another woman and eventually setting up his own successful paediatrics practice, he never forgot about the teen who captured his heart.
In his basement, he had carefully laid out hundreds of photocopied pages from Renia’s diary.
“Every few days or nights, he’d wander down to his basement, and he’d read and study the diary near a photo of Renia he’d hung on the wall,” Elizabeth says.
For Zygmunt – and for Renia – it was true love until the end.
- Renia’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust by Renia Spiegel (Ebury Press) is available now