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Here's a story for you. A Jewish girl begins a diary just as World War II is about to start in Europe. She records the details of daily life, but more and more the war takes over the story, and eventually the diary comes to a heartbreaking end. This is not Anne Frank's diary. This is Renia's diary, a journal that spent decades stored away in a safe-deposit box, now it's being published with help from Renia's niece and sister. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: For a long time, Elizabeth Bellak didn't even know that her older sister Renata had kept a diary as a teenager in Poland. Then one day, her sister's old boyfriend Zygmunt showed up in New York.
ELIZABETH BELLAK: Suddenly in the '50s, somehow Zygmunt appeared in our apartment. We have no idea where he got the diary. And my mother was totally shocked.
NEARY: Elizabeth and Renata - or Renia, as they called her - had been separated from their mother during the war. Though Elizabeth and her mother made it out of Poland and settled in New York, Renia was shot to death by the Nazis. Elizabeth says her mother never read the diary.
E BELLAK: She was too emotionally stricken to read it. She just put it in the vault and didn't think about it because she was always heartbroken about my sister.
ALEXANDRA BELLAK: It's the depiction of a wonderful, intelligent, vibrant girl who showed great courage in dire circumstances, and it's hard to confront.
NEARY: Alexandra Bellak is Elizabeth's daughter. She grew up knowing about the diary, but after her grandmother died, her own mother also kept it locked away. Alexandra says as she got older, she was more and more curious about her aunt and her diary.
A BELLAK: You know, my name is Alexandra Renata, so I'm named after this mysterious woman I was never able to meet because she was brutally killed by the Nazis. And I wanted to learn about my past and heritage and background, and thought, well, if I could read this diary, maybe I'll unearth some things about my past that I would like to know about.
NEARY: She got the diary from its hiding place and asked a student in Poland to translate it for her. When she read it, Alexandra was stunned. Her aunt was an aspiring writer and a gifted poet. The poems and diary entries reveal a young girl falling in love, missing her mother, afraid that she won't survive the war. In this excerpt, from one of her poems, Renia expresses her yearning to be with her mother again.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Know that when the dusk begins, and the tower bell tolls for evening prayer and the December day has spent all its power - curled and shriveled in a ponderous hour - I will come to you. I'll come in yearning that flows or in a sparkling star that glows or in a silent holiday breath or in a sigh instead. I'll come...
NEARY: At the beginning of the war, the town where Renia lived with her grandparents was occupied by the Soviets. Renia's mother was in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and couldn't get to her children. Alexandra Bellak says her aunt's world came to life as the diary shifts between the daily concerns of a teenage girl and the moments when war intrudes.
A BELLAK: I do think that her gift as a writer is remarkable. Just through the simplicity and naturalness, you can find a connection with her as a young teenager whose questions and challenges are as relevant today, really, as ever - from the very mundane, everyday issues that she was facing to the terrible evil around her.
NEARY: And all the while, she is falling in love with Zygmunt, the boy who survives the war and later brings the diary to her family. In one entry, she describes their first kiss.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) It was all so sudden and unexpected and sweet and intimidating. I was at a loss for words and terribly mixed up. He said, Renuska, give me a kiss, and before I knew it, it happened. He wanted more later, and I couldn't, I was shaking all over.
NEARY: Shortly after that first kiss, the Nazis took control of the town and life became much worse for the Jews who lived there, says Elizabeth Bellak.
E BELLAK: She doesn't only write about poetry and love, but she also writes about the misery of the war, about the soldiers, about the horrors, what's going on. And my sister can explain how awful it was, but also how life could be so beautiful.
NEARY: Elizabeth and her daughter Alexandra are thrilled that Renia's diary has been published because, they say, it's a story that needs to be heard now more than ever
A BELLAK: We can't forget what happened, and we have to educate each other so we don't repeat the same types of racism and prejudice and hate that lead to active violence.
E BELLAK: I'm very happy too because I'm looking for tolerance. You know, if some people weren't tolerant, I wouldn't be here today.
NEARY: Elizabeth Bellak wrote a commentary that accompanies her sister's diary, which she finally read decades after the end of the war. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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