“You will help me, Bulus and God.” On July 25th, 1942, 18-year-old Renia Spiegel closed out her diary entry with this line; a mantra-like sentence she had written at the end of countless diary entries over three years. Bulus was a pet name for her mother, Roza, whom she had been separated from for more than two years by then.
Five days after she wrote this final diary entry, Renia Spiegel was dead. She was shot by the Nazis who had discovered her in hiding alongside her boyfriend's parents: he had endeavored to save them all, but someone had betrayed their attic hiding place in the Przemysl Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Despite Renia Spiegel’s hopes and optimism, neither her mother nor her faith could save the teenager from a ruthless death.
I ask the woman sitting in front of me in a hotel in London’s Mayfair how the word Bulus is pronounced,
“Boo-lush,” she says.
Elizabeth Bellak is 88, and Bulus was her mother too. Her Polish name was Ariana, and she escaped from the ghetto, aged 11; brought to safety by Zygmunt Schwarzer, her sister’s boyfriend. He could not save the girl he loved, but he saved her only other sibling, at the risk of his own life. (She changed her name to Elizabeth Leszczynska when she converted to Catholicism while living with her mother in Warsaw, to try to avoid being discovered and identified as Jewish. Bellak is her married name.)
Elizabeth Bellak is a woman small in stature, but fizzing with energy and glamour. She turns heads as she walks across the hotel lobby. Her cloud of hair is resolutely black, one wrist carries a small cargo of gold jewelled bangles, her large gold earrings are coiled serpents, and there is a long strand of pearls around her neck. (On hearing my name, she tells me that back in New York, where she now lives, a woman called Rosita strings her pearls for her.)
It’s hard to connect this elegantly-dressed woman, wearing her gold jewellery so insouciantly, with the image I have in my head of her as a child escaping from a ghetto.
I think people of my mother's generation just didn't want to talk about the war
In 1942, she was bearing gold of a different kind: her grandfather, with whom she had been living, taped 20 gold coins to a little lunchbox she carried with her while escaping. Neither of her grandparents survived: they were both also murdered by the Nazis. Elizabeth does not know where they are buried, any more than she knows what happened the body of her dead sister.
On the table in front of us are the American and British editions of Renia’s Diary, which is published this month. Elizabeth and her mother (her father also died during the war) emigrated to the US as soon as they could, and built another life in New York.
“One day in the early 1950s, Zygmunt [her sister’s boyfriend] came to our apartment and he had the diary with him,” Elizabeth says.
Zygmunt Schwarzer had survived the war, and also got out. He had been issued a work permit, which allowed him to work for the Germans outside the ghetto, which gave him a modicum of protection. But had he been stopped on the day he smuggled out Ariana Spiegel, as she was then, both would have been murdered.
“He had minded the diary all that time. I never asked him how he got it, or where it had been. He must have hidden it somewhere during the war. I don’t know how he found us either.”
Neither Elizabeth nor her mother had known that Renia had been keeping a diary. “It’s 700 pages, and I don’t know when she wrote it, because I saw her all the time. I must have thought she was doing homework. My mother and I were both so overwhelmed. She took it from him and cried.”
Like so many Jewish families at that time, the Spiegels’ lives had been upended by the war. Elizabeth, who was working as a child actress, had been living with her mother, who was also her manager, in Warsaw. Renia Spiegel had been sent to live with their grandparents in Przemysl.
Their father was working elsewhere. Elizabeth joined her sister and grandparents, after her mother became stranded on the other side of the border, separating them.
“Renia was like my surrogate mother,” she says now. “She did everything for me: told me what to wear; was I doing my homework; did I feel sick.”
When Elizabeth’s mother Roza took possession of the diary, neither of them were able to read it, due to the painful memories of a lost daughter and sister. “My mother didn’t read it. She couldn’t read it, she said,” Elizabeth explains.
For more than 40 years, the diary was stored in a bank safety deposit box in New York. By then, Elizabeth was married to George Bellak and had two children, Andrew and Alexandra.
There is another person on the hotel sofa with Elizabeth; Alexandra Bellak, her daughter. She was responsible for retrieving the diary of her long-dead aunt from storage.
“I have been thinking about it for the last 20 years,” she says now. “I knew very little about my mother’s life in Poland. Almost nothing.
“I think people of my mother’s generation just didn’t want to talk about the war. They were harbouring dark secrets and heavy emotions too painful to tell. I knew I had an aunt who died, but nothing about her.”
“So we took the diary out of the vault,” her mother says.
Against the background of what was going on, it shows the normalcy of everyday teenage mundane woes
Alexandra could not read Polish. Her mother then made an attempt to try and read the diary for her daughter. “I tried to translate it with a Polish friend of mine, and I really couldn’t do it, it’s too tragic for me; too wrenching and was bringing terrible memories,” she explains.
Alexandra commissioned a rough working translation, and was finally able to find out about her family’s wartime history in Poland, through the diary entries of her aunt.
The diary ran from January 31st, 1939 to July 25th, 1942. Although a great portion of it is taken up with Spiegel’s teenage infatuation and romance with Schwarzer, it also includes chilling references to daily life under fear of transportation to camps from where no one returned.
It was only in her final month of life that a ghetto was established in the town where she was living, and the sisters and their grandparents had to move. “Since eight o’clock today we have been shut away in the ghetto. I live here now,” she writes on July 15th, 1942. “The world is separated from me and I’m separated from the world. The days are terrible and the nights are not at all better. Every day brings more casualties.”
What was it like for Alexandra to read her aunt’s diary?
“I had many emotions,” she says. “I was happy to finally be able to understand something about my past and my mother’s sister: the woman I was named after – my middle name is Renata.
“It was emotionally difficult because she does end so many diary entries with saying that her mother and God will help her, and we know what happened. There was also a sense of guilt; to be poring over someone’s intimate and private life.”
While Renia’s Diary, like Anne Frank’s, is the diary of a teenage girl living under wartime duress, it is not comparable as a work of literature. There are more than 60 poems included in the manuscript, but it lacks the biting humour, the philosophy and charm of Anne Frank’s diary. It is nonetheless an important additional piece of testimony and social history from that time.
“Against the background of what was going on, it shows the normalcy of everyday teenage mundane woes: bickering with a friend, bickering with her younger sister, falling in love,” says Alexandra. “It’s a coming-of-age story, and also a universal story of persecution.”
As Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust History at Emory University writes in her introduction to the diary about personal testimonies of the Holocaust: “Diaries are different, not only because they allow us to hear the voices of those who did not survive. Most importantly, diaries offer us something that memoirs do not: an emotional immediacy . . . Simply put, the author of a memoir knows the end of the story. The diarist does not.”
A second, professional translation was commissioned and a publisher found for the diary, the rights of which have since been sold to 13 countries. In addition to the core diary entries, Elizabeth has written an epilogue and contextualising notes, which greatly add to the text, although it seems a missed opportunity not to have included Alexandra’s voice and perspective also.
“Survivors are leaving us now, and with them, first-hand account experiences during those dark times,” Alexandra says. “As second- and third-generation relatives, we have to work harder to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. You can do it through education, like this book. It’s 80 years since the start of the war, and it seems so relevant to me that the diary is coming out now. We are in danger of going back to those times, with all their isms – nationalism, populism, fascism.”
The family still hold possession of the diary, but are considering a future donation to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, who have asked for it. Meanwhile, it remains in Elizabeth’s care.
Does she feel what some people describe as “survivor’s guilt”, for having escaped and lived, unlike her sister, now dead for 77 years? She writes in her epilogue to the diary that trying to read it gave her “panic attacks”.
Elizabeth doesn’t hesitate with her answer for even a second. “I don’t feel guilty,” she states. “I feel lucky I survived.”
Renia’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust, by Renia Spiegel, is published by Ebury Press
This article was edited on Octboer 3rd, 2019