On September 22, 1941, the start of the year 5702 in the Jewish calendar, Renia Spiegel wrote in her diary about the prospect of finally seeing her mother after months of separation.
Now the dream has practically come true. It’s the New Year today and the dream has come true? Actually not completely, but in 99% it did. And I wish all dreams came true like this. It feels so strange. To think that Mama is so close, that she’s in the same city, that she’s thinking about me now, that she’d like to embrace me as much as I her … to think there’s a horrible river, a river people have made horrible. A river which has been separating us for two years–and now again. Why it’s unthinkable that I can’t see Mother when she’s here so close, so close.
Renia started her diary at the end of January 1939. She was 13 years old, and lived with her grandparents in Przemysl in southern Poland, near the border with Ukraine. Her mother lived in Warsaw, where she had moved to promote the acting career of her youngest daughter Ariana. The picture of the three of them at the top of this post was taken in 1937.
Eight months after Renia started her diary, Hitler and Stalin divided Poland. Before the Soviets arrived, the Germans bombed Przemysl, destroying the pedestrian/vehicular bridge over the river San. They also immediately started beating and shooting Jewish inhabitants. Before pulling back across the San for the Soviet occupation, the Germans burned the Old Synagogue, the Klois, the Hassidic prayer house, the Tempel Synagogue on Jagiellonska Street and parts of the Jewish quarter. Like many inhabitants of Przemysl, Renia, her sisters, and her grandfather fled the city, staying in Lwow (now Lviv, Ukraine) until Soviet troops arrived.
While Renia, her sister, and her grandparents were in the Soviet sector, her mother was caught in Warsaw in the German sector. The river San marked the border between these two sectors in Przemysl. That’s the “horrible river” which Renia refers to in her diary entry. Even though the Germans had invaded a few months earlier and Przemysl was all under German control as Renia was writing, only the railroad bridge was left for people to get across the river. The Germans did not allow civilians, especially Jews, to use that bridge.
Renia ended this long Rosh Hashanah entry with a prayer.
Bye, Mama, sleep well; may you dream that everything I prayed for yesterday comes true. Today I wish for a favorable end of the war, for my parents to reconcile, Zygus [her boyfriend] for me only, and good things for everyone. You will help me, Bulus and God.
Renia used that last line, “You will help me, Bulus and God,” to end almost all the entries in her diary. “Bulus” was her affectionate name for her mother.
Renia did not live to see the next New Year. She was shot in the street, along with her boyfriend’s parents, in a German Aktion to clear the Przemysl Ghetteo on July 31, 1942. Renia’s mother, sister, and boyfriend Zygmunt all survived the Holocaust through further tribulations. Zygmunt recorded Renia’s murder on the last page of her diary and hid it in a safe place to be retrieved after he returned from Auschwitz. He brought the diary to Renia’s sister, now called Elizabeth, in New York in the 1950s. Elizabeth kept the diary in a safety deposit box until her daughter insisted that it should be translated and published. That book Renia’s Diary was just published this September 24. I just finished reading it in the wee hours of September 29.
Written this Rosh Hashanah 5780. As did Renia, I wish good things for everyone.