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January 31, 2024 31 mins

Elizabeth Bellak grew up in the limelight. Dubbed the “Polish Shirley Temple,” she had big dreams for her acting career. But all that changed when the Nazis invaded her hometown. On this emotional episode of She Pivots, the now-94-year-old talks with Emily about hiding in plain sight under a new name in convents, the murder of her sister and future discovery of her diary, her escape to Austria and then New York, and the building of a new life in America. Elizabeth also makes a plea for tolerance and acceptance–a critical, timely message that is not to be missed.

 

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:11):
I ever said I was your shif. Did you a shift?

Speaker 2 (00:22):
Could you just say, welcome back to she Pivots, Welcome
to she Perfect, Welcome back to she Pivots. I'm your host,
Emily Tis Susman. We're releasing this episode in honor of Holocaust,
a of remembrance. I'm honored to be sharing the story

(00:43):
of Elizabeth Ballack, who is the author of Renie's Diary.
This book is an extraordinary recount written by her sister
during the start of World War Two. Just like Anne Frank,
Renya's Diary is a record of her daily life as
the Nazis spread through Europe. It's a moving and harrowing
account of what happened during that time, and I want

(01:04):
to take a moment. As a Jewish woman, the last
six months have been extremely difficult. It's been a mixture
of disappointment, confusion, anger, and most of all, fear. I'm
so honored to have a platform to be able to
share stories like Elizabeth, like renye'z. Those who went through
the tragedies of World War Two and the Holocaust are

(01:24):
getting older and their stories are more important than ever
and relevant as ever. Speaking with Elizabeth, it was fascinating
to hear how she and her mother survived the war,
and even more fascinating to understand the perspective that she
has now looking back on her experience, something she experienced
over eighty years ago. Like many survivors, Elizabeth struggled to

(01:46):
confront the traumas of her past after building a life
here in America. It wasn't until she was married with
children that she even knew anything about her sister Renya's diary,
and it wasn't until a few years ago that she
had the strength to read it. Elizabeth's life is steeped
in a pivot that was forced upon her at a
young age, and it's dictated how she views and approaches
her life. I hope you get as much out of

(02:08):
this episode as I did speaking with Elizabeth.

Speaker 1 (02:14):
Hi, my name is I was born ariana speaker. Then
when during the war, when I was about ten, I
was baptized and they named me elizabus Yaroslava Aricha Lushinshka.

(02:36):
It was on false papers, and when I married George Bellach,
who was six weeks old, I became Elizamus Bellach, but
still Elizabeth Why Belach? So right now? My name is

(02:57):
Elizabes Bella.

Speaker 2 (03:01):
Elizabeth previously Arianna, as she mentioned, was born in Poland
in nineteen thirties to an upper middle class family. She
was the younger of the two siblings. Between her and Rhenya, she.

Speaker 1 (03:12):
Was six years older than I. My sister was an
extremely intelligent girl. My grandmother sent her outside of school
to this professor, yes Sina. He was a Polonistic professor.
So her Polish was beautiful. And you know, during when

(03:32):
we were in Warsaw and they read part of the books,
they say that she was so sophistic. There was a
lady who was a literary clitic and she read some
passages of my sisters, you know work, and she said,
how great was the Polish. I remember how we lived,

(03:54):
How wonderful she was. She was so romantic. She loved love,
She liked the birds, thing, she likes the windlow, She
saw the as tencha, you know, the rainbow. She saw
every beauty in everything. My sister, I mean, she was

(04:16):
just great. My sister unfortunate. She had to go to school.
And when my mother took me to be on the actress,
she could not manage my sister. But my sister adored
my mother. And in the book that she writes, she
writes that in every chapter, and she missed my mother terribly,

(04:41):
and she missed the warm hands, the hug, the feeling
of having the mother. She missed it terribly. And every
step of the way. She writes, timmy promoter's bulue she
brought it. We used to call my mother bullu whatever.
And she writes, you will help me, mom and God.

Speaker 2 (05:09):
So you were called the Polish Shirley Temple.

Speaker 1 (05:12):
Oh yes I was. I was Paul Shirley Temple, and
I had a wonderful life. So there was this lady
in Warsaw. My mother took me to Warsaw. My sister
stayed with my grandparents in the town of Sheemish in Poland.
She studied and stayed there, and my mother took me

(05:35):
to become an actress. So there was a lady in
Warsaw who lived in the palace. Her name was Alcisceska.
She was Jewish and she used to be an actress herself,
and she took me under her wing, and she taught
me all these wonderful poems, which I still remember many

(05:57):
of and I became an actress. I was in two movies.
One was called Granita and one was called Gehenna. And
they wrote about me in the magazine and said this
is now a wonder child. My mother saved that, so

(06:20):
she had a little strip that's in the book and
it says Ariyana Polish sharing Temple. And I was on
the radio when I was five years old telling my
sister's poetry. Actually, so my mother thought that my sister
was gifted in writing and I had a gift in speaking.

(06:42):
I was also always in person in a nightclub called
Serruris Varshavski, and I resided many poems. So I recited
poems of Julian Tuviman and Jan Yesha. They were wonderful,
wonderful people, and they loved the way I recited the poems.

(07:08):
So this is what I did when I was Shirley Temple.
Do you remember when you started acting? Did you have
dreams of being like a lifelong actress. So my career
started when I was really quite young. My mother thought
I was good. I yess I was. They sent me

(07:30):
to ballet school, they sent me for piano lessons, they
sent me everywhere to study. So I figured, well that's
my career. So I went to school very little, but
I studied, you know, how to act, and I was

(07:51):
the famous actresses in the movies, and I was very happy.
And then it was a summer of thirty nine. That's
why we have all these pictures. My mother was in
Warsaw and she sent me to my grandparents. I would
join my sister for the summer. When the war broke out, so,

(08:12):
of course my career was finished and I just forgot
about it. I just went to Russian school. The Soviet
occupied that town. A sterile life. But how my career
was gone.

Speaker 2 (08:30):
Do you remember for you the first time you started
to feel things shift.

Speaker 1 (08:36):
During the war when the Soviets arrived in nineteen thirty nine.
That was fighting.

Speaker 2 (08:48):
You know, you were.

Speaker 1 (08:49):
Petrified walking on the street. The Germans start taking the
coat away, the fur coat, they took the piano, they this,
they died. I mean they came to the house, you
took you paying I don't know what. It was a
terrible situation. So when the Germans came live, became here,

(09:09):
they were shooting Jews right away. You had to wear
a star. I didn't because I wasn't twelve yet. My
sister had to wear stars we were forbidden to go
to school. They came, they confiscated our piano. My grandpa
gave away all the fur coats to the Ukrainian men.

(09:33):
They started to make actions and they started to build
the ghetto.

Speaker 3 (09:42):
For many months, the occupiers considered a project to create
a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, including its plan and location.
In the end, it was decided to create a ghetto
in the very heart of this metropolis.

Speaker 1 (10:00):
So now we are with the Germans and life is terrible.
There's building a ghetto. We lived in our building, and
the policeman comes and says, we have to move. We
can only take twenty five kill each person. Now what's

(10:21):
twenty five KILLO? It's nothing. So my grandfa knows the
police when he's Polish. He gives him something in our
little bit, this and that money, of course, and it
says to him this and maybe you let us stay awhile.
So we are lucky. We stay in a while in

(10:42):
our place, and then in the summer of forty two
we finally have to move. So we are now in
getto well.

Speaker 2 (10:54):
Elizabeth lived in the ghetto with her grandfather, still united
with her sister. Her mother lived in Warsaw.

Speaker 1 (11:01):
So we had a little communication with my mother and
it was really pretty bad. My sister, you know, she
took care of me like my mother. When the Germans
were on one side of the river Son and we
were on this side on the river, and these were

(11:21):
the Soviets and these were the Germans. So one day
my mom came from the German side to the German
side there and we somehow we smuggled through, I don't know.
So we saw her and we found out she was alive.
You know, there was some big story because we only

(11:44):
saw her very little. And then she went back to Warsaw.
She couldn't come back to us, and then we stayed
and went to Russian school. My sister writes about it
in the book. Now, when she was under the Russians
in the school, she is the write poetry for every

(12:05):
professor said we needed for this or that she would
present it with the poem. She was a little president
of the literary club. She was in some Russian paper.
So she had a friend. Now she becoming friend. How
we got the diary, you know. So Zigmund Swarza is

(12:25):
her boyfriend. He's very cute guy. Oh my god, he
has green eyes, curly dark hair. He's jest, gorgeous guy,
and he loves my sister.

Speaker 2 (12:41):
Zigmund becomes integral to both Elizabeth's survival and the survival
of Renia's diary.

Speaker 1 (12:47):
Zigmund becomes a friend. The girls are all jealous, and
my sister is jealous. Here you know half of these
poems to green eyes and whatever else, and some about
the terrible war. So now we living in legircho, my
sister and I very short time.

Speaker 2 (13:09):
Pressure was building and building quickly, so Zigmund took on
the responsibility to save Renya, Elizabeth, and his parents, later
writing in the diary this passage quote, First of all,
dear Diary, please forgive me for wandering into your pages
and trying to carry on the work of somebody I'm
not worthy of. Let me tell you that Renia didn't

(13:29):
get the work permit stamp she needed to avoid being deported,
so she has to stay in hiding. My dear parents
have also been refused work permit stamps. I swear to
God in history that I will save the three people
who are dearest to me, even if it cost me
my own life.

Speaker 1 (13:46):
So Zigmont takes his mother, the father was a doctor also,
and my sister. He takes him. I don't know how
he teaches him who he drives out of They get them,
so he takes them out and they're going to hide
the garret and me, I don't know who she rives.

(14:10):
He takes me out and I go to Jica's house.
So Zigmund takes me there, and I stayed there a
week and when somebody knocks on the door, they shoved
me under the bed. You know, I don't know. By
now my sister is died, and so are his parents.

(14:33):
Somebody ritage on them and they kill them.

Speaker 2 (14:36):
Three three shots, three lives lost. It happened last night
at ten thirty pm. Fate decided to take my dearest
ones away from me. My life is over all I
can hear are shots shots, shots, My dearest Rhia, the
last chapter of your diary is complete. Still in hiding,

(15:01):
Elizabeth had no idea her sister had just been killed,
as Sigmund made arrangements for her to escape with a
Christian man named Vesinski.

Speaker 1 (15:13):
Chris was the story. My impact gives me a little
lunch box to take and he says that inside is
you know, there are golds twenty dollars gold notes, and
they are paced to my little thing inside and some

(15:37):
gold things in the handle. And he says, you know,
you probably need some money. Sometime she'll be able to
sell it, and you have a little money if you need.
So all I have is just a little lunch box,
a little dress and a coat. That's all I have.

Speaker 2 (15:59):
Standing on the press pits of escape, little Elizabeth clenched
her lunchbox on the train station platform, her last connection
to her family.

Speaker 1 (16:09):
So I see the first time the railroad station that
I was going to with what fear. And we have
to change in crack off and then crack off there
are all this gifts stop on people and with the dogs,
you know, those big shepherd dogs, and everybody has to

(16:33):
show the papers what it is, you know. And he's
holding me by my head, says this is my daughter.
I have nothing, no papers, nothing, and that's it. We
take anothersh train to go to Warshaw now and we
come to the station in Warshaw and the guy suddenly

(16:57):
appears and set and you know, frightened. I'm scared. So
I'm about nine, and he says, you are tearing a
Jewish child. So he's telling it to mister Rashushki and

(17:17):
he turns to him. Now he was nice looking man
with him, you know, mustache, elegant, and he says, gets
her red and he said, if you think anything like that,
I'm going to kill you. The man runs away and
I'm saved.

Speaker 2 (17:42):
He took her to live with the butt of your family,
owners of a hotel. The husband is a Christian man
who married a Jewish woman named Helena Pareta.

Speaker 1 (17:51):
She had two children. She lived on a fancy street.
She had a butler. You know, they were wealthy. Not
Bereda is helping us. They helped my mother to get
the false papers. Help Clada Jewish and he helping me.
So now he's gonna baptize me and they get me

(18:13):
the papers. If it wasn't for the Christian guy, I
wouldn't be here. But it was real, real. He took
me under this. You know, he could have been killed
any minutes, and his kids and his wife, but he
wanted to save my life.

Speaker 2 (18:34):
It was there the little Ariana was baptized and named
Elizabeth to hide her in plain sight.

Speaker 1 (18:40):
And I stay there for a while with my mom,
but they shoved me into a convent. One convident after another.

Speaker 2 (18:53):
When you were baptized, and when you started moving from
convent to convent, did you think of it as just
a way to survive and you still thought of yourself
as Jewish? Or did you really believe?

Speaker 1 (19:05):
Now, I didn't know anything about the Catholic religion. What
did I know? But the nuns ruth that I was Jewish.
Now only the nuns know that I'm Jewish baptized, nobody else,
And I feel funny. I must tell you, I'm put

(19:27):
into this situation that she's so novel. Not show me,
but I play my role.

Speaker 2 (19:34):
Elizabeth remained at the convent until her mother was able
to find work under her false papers and move Elizabeth
in with her.

Speaker 1 (19:42):
My mother takes me where she lives, and she works
in the hotel Offa and I live with her. Now
I'm so happy. You know, I got away from this convent.

Speaker 2 (19:55):
How old are you about now?

Speaker 1 (19:56):
Ten eleven? Yeah? And every Sunday we always go to church.

Speaker 2 (20:04):
So your mother used the connection start working for Americans
and then used the connection to get to America.

Speaker 1 (20:11):
A German Man, he's an officer, falls in love with
my mom. So he falls in love. He wants to
Maria and said Maria, let's your name. He gives all
kinds of papers now and we get into an ambulance
with a couple of suitcases. It was a big red

(20:32):
Cross and they take us to the German line to Germany.

Speaker 2 (20:38):
They drove down through Dresden, Berlin and all the way
through to Austria, where her mother found work. Not quite free,
but safe.

Speaker 1 (20:46):
And it's the Americans who freed us in Bathgastani and
they're coming in and we are just so enthused to
see that now maybe we could be alive. So she
gets a job with the Americans. She and her mother

(21:09):
would continue to live in Europe for the next year,
making sure to keep their cover. So of course you
go to church in Germany every day. We lived there
a year, so then we finally get freed.

Speaker 2 (21:23):
Finally freed. Her mother knew that life for her and
Elizabeth was not possible in Germany, so she began to
arrange plans to either go to France or America.

Speaker 1 (21:33):
She says, she's going to America. She just wanted a
new life. She was lost everything, everybody. So my mom
decided what she was going to do. So she goes
to America and the son of the Noubilia comes and
gets us at the boat. It was called Marine Marlene,

(21:58):
a diggy little boat. We went to Breyman House, Bremen,
where we lived also in a little camp till we
left the boat. And it was December of forty six.
It was after the war, and my mother did everything.
I don't know how she did so fast. The war
was over in forty five. She had all these jobs.

(22:21):
She was just great.

Speaker 2 (22:24):
Finally they made it to America, ready to leave behind
the horrors of their life before and build a new.

Speaker 1 (22:33):
So my mother sends me to a boarding school because
I have no place to live, and she gets a
job in Greenwich, in Kent House. My mother sent me.
They gave me a scholarship. She had no money, so
I went there. I graduated in nineteen forty nine.

Speaker 2 (22:50):
Elizabeth was a brilliant student and went on to study
at Columbia University, where she received her master's degree in
child psychology. She later went on to teach in New
York City, which is where she met her late husband,
George Bellack.

Speaker 1 (23:04):
I met him teaching high school. I used to teach
school for twenty seven years in New York City. But
I retired in nineteen ninety five. I was a public
school teacher. First I thought, I have two lice Russias,
three licenses, one for Russian, one for German, and one

(23:26):
for elementary school. Since they didn't teach my languages anymore.
I went to Columbia undergraduate. I have a master's in
child psychology, but I needed three points to be a
guidance counselor buy in field going back to school. So
my husband had a doctorate from Columbia and she taught

(23:50):
school and college for forty five years.

Speaker 2 (23:54):
She and George had two kids, her daughter Alexandra and
her son Andrew, and built a beautiful life, setting aside
the difficult journey to get there, until one day Sigmund
showed up at her mother's doorstep with her sister Rennie's diary.

Speaker 1 (24:09):
He finds my mother in New York and he comes
with this diary. We haven't seen him.

Speaker 2 (24:17):
How we found my mom?

Speaker 1 (24:19):
It was it was nothing like today, and he finds
it and there it is. She finds me and my moa.
Of course, you can't imagine the crying and the hand on.

Speaker 2 (24:35):
You know, the premise of this show is that sometimes
things happen to us, and when we're in it, we
think this is terrible, I'm never going to come out
of this, and then we become who we are after
it because of that thing that happened to us. So
looking back, can you think of one moment where you thought, Okay,

(24:56):
this is terrible, I'm never going to come out of
this and that Tournto positive When we were in neghetto,
I thought that was the end.

Speaker 1 (25:04):
You have no idea behind those wires.

Speaker 2 (25:09):
This part of the audio is a bit difficult to understand,
but Elizabeth made the connection between the atrocities she and
so many other Jews experienced and how it led to
the creation and publication of her sister's diary.

Speaker 1 (25:22):
It was because of my daughter that this book is existing,
because it was in the vault. My mom never read it,
neither did I. I started to translate and cry.

Speaker 2 (25:33):
The diary sat in the safety deposit box and possession
of Elizabeth's mother until her tragic early death at the
age of just sixty three. From there, it was Elizabeth's daughter,
Alexandra who pushed to understand what the diary said. Once
she got a taste, she knew it was not only
a historic document, but a brilliant piece of literary work.
She worked tirelessly for over twenty years to accurately translate

(25:57):
the more than six hundred page diary.

Speaker 1 (26:01):
And finally the book is translated into twenty two languages.
It's so because of my daughter.

Speaker 2 (26:07):
You know.

Speaker 1 (26:07):
I was Christian, of course, and I went to church
for years and all that. But because I was born
Jewish and now that the situation is bad, I wanted
to defend the Jewish. Why should they be so murdered again,
that's no right, There's so few Jews around, for God's sake,

(26:29):
Why should they be murdered all the time? Hate like that? Hey,
it's terrible. It never was like this when I came
here nineteen forty six. Wasn't that bad? It just developed Now.

Speaker 2 (26:44):
I want to get more of your opinion on this
because I think for me, as a young Jewish person
who grew up basically without anti Semitism, I really wasn't
aware that it existed in the same way that it did.
It concerns me right now that not just the rise
of anti Semitism, but the apathy I think from non
Jewish people concerns me that it feels comparable to the

(27:06):
apathy in nineteen thirties and forties.

Speaker 1 (27:09):
Well, you suddenly see people ya don't want to die.
I understand the Palestinians, but it's not well, you know what,
it's fault here and there. I don't think that Nata
Yahoo was right what she was doing a trouble team.

(27:30):
He wasn't aware that the people were right there, you know,
rather than fighting with their own people. Right, that wasn't
so good. There should be unity for God's sake. Look
how we watched that woman gold on my ear, look
for a great woman. Not there was unity. You know.

(27:54):
The Jewish a very small group. They've got to have unity.
Why people full of religion, Hey, you go to church, pray,
you go to synago, you pray, you go to a
marsk pray, you praise the God. Why if you praise
your God you kill the other guy for God? Why?

Speaker 2 (28:17):
Terrible?

Speaker 1 (28:19):
That's why I say for me important to say that
there should be more tolerance in the world. We need tolerance,
we need acceptance. I know what suddenly happened. You know,
it's weird and it's in a short time, right, So

(28:42):
my sister's book is very up up to it.

Speaker 2 (28:47):
Well, I know that we want to have time to
go upstairs and play the piano, which I'm very excited
to see. But I know that we just need to
get us saying goodbye and thank you so we can
wrap it up. So thank you so much, Elizabeth.

Speaker 1 (28:58):
Well, it was lovely to you.

Speaker 4 (29:00):
Thank you as well, Stiff bye, nice, got you, shed.

Speaker 1 (29:35):
That's got you, You get everybody else.

Speaker 2 (29:43):
At ninety five, Elizabeth still lives in Manhattan and talks
proudly of her children and grandchildren. Standing at fairly five feet,
Elizabeth has a wonderfully large presence and zest for life.
Be sure to pick up a copy of Rena's diary.
It is truly a story important document. To learn more
about Elizabeth, you can actually follow her daughter Alexandra on

(30:05):
Instagram at Alexandra Belleck. Thanks for listening to this episode
of She Pivots. If you've made it this far, you're
a true pivoter, so thanks for being part of this community.
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you did
leave us a rating, please be nice tell your friends

(30:25):
about us. To learn more about our guests, follow us
on Instagram at she Pivots the podcast, or sign up
for our newsletter. Where you can get exclusive behind the
scenes content, or on our website, she Pivots the podcast
talk to You Next Week.

Speaker 5 (30:41):
Special thanks to the she Pivots team, Executive producer Emily Edavlosk,
Associate producer and social media Connaisur Hannah Cousins, Research director
Christine Dickinson, Events and Logistics coordinator Madeline Sonovak, and audio
editor and mixer Nina Pollock.

Speaker 1 (30:57):
I'm yours, She Pivot
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