Past all the tombs of those once wealthy and famous, beyond the charismatic suffering sculpted in stone on countless graves, on a plot rarely frequented by passersby, stands a metal cross that looks the same as thousands of others in Lviv’s Lychakiv cemetery. Mounted on that metal cross is a small white placard. The largest writing on the placard is the name of the teenage girl buried there, Lusia Zaremba. On the next to last line of Polish language text is another name, Henryk Zaremba. Henryk was Lusia’s father. From time to time flowers are attached to the post, a gift to memory. It is a strange sight to behold, this basic grave, almost anonymous now, but in the early 1930’s the name of Lusia struck mystery and terror in the hearts of Lvivians. Her father had always been the famous one, a renowned architect known throughout the city, but it was now his daughter who gained a degree of fame and sympathy unprecedented for that time. Lusia had been murdered on a cold winter night, on the cusp of New Year’s Eve in 1930. This act set off the most famous trial in the Second Republic of Poland, one that captured the public’s imagination. It was fueled by sensational reports from the media of strained family relations. The resulting trial and its aftermath led to mysteries that to this day have never been solved.
Broken Families – United By Heartache
Henryk Zaremba was a highly successful Polish architect in interwar Lviv (at that time the city was known by its Polish name of Lwów). Famous and wealthy he lived with his wife and two children at a villa less than 10 kilometers from the city, in the community of Łączkach. This life of prosperity and acclaim was not nearly as blissful as it might have looked on the surface. The first inklings of major trouble occurred when Henryk’s first wife lost her mind and had to be placed in a mental asylum. This left Henryk with two young children to rear. The eldest was Elzbieta (Lusia), born in 1914. There was also a son who had been born three years later, Stanislaw. Not long after his wife was committed, Henryk brought a governess into the home, Rita Gorgonowa, to help raise the children. She was beautiful yet also haunted by a troubled past.
Gorgonowa was actually born on the opposite end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Dalmatia, just after the turn of the 20th century. She was likely an ethnic Croat. Her looks and charm paid off for her at an early age. When she was just 15 years old, Gorgonowa married a colonel in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. This brought the couple to Lviv. Unfortunately for them, the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be on the losing side of the war and soon dissolve. Gorgonowa’s husband was now unemployed and because of his background, unemployable. He did what hundreds of thousands of others had done before the war and many would also do afterward, immigrate abroad to the United States. Oddly he did not take Rita with him. She was left with in-laws who proceeded to accuse her of moral turpitude and banished her from their home. From this strange situation Rita, still youthful and good looking at the age of just 23, was employed by Henryk Zaremba, eighteen years her elder.
Live In Lover, Step Mother In Waiting
A common thread between the two most important men in Rita Gorgonowa’s life, her former husband and Henryk Zaremeba, was that they were both much older men. Her physician father had died when she was just a toddler. It seems that she spent much of her life searching for the father figure that fate had denied her during childhood. This was also a search for security. With no immediate family to rely on she had to create her own. Henryk Zaremba, with his two children offered a ready made family. Gorgonowa started out as the family’s full-time babysitter, but through the force of her personality and good looks ended up in charge of the household. She began a long running affair with Henryk, which resulted in a daughter. There is little doubt that Rita hoped to marry Henryk. This would never happen.
The main reason was friction between Rita and Henryk’s eldest child, Lusia. The daughter despised her father’s live-in lover, a step mother in waiting. Several years of tension weighed on the entire family, to the point that Henryk decided that he and his own children would move to another one of his homes. This was presented to Rita as a break in the relationship, but not quite the end. This respite was more than she could accept. Her ire over the impending separation was directed at Lusia, now seventeen years old.
The End Of One Horror & The Beginning of Another
The period between Christmas and New Year’s in Poland was usually one of relaxation. This is where quality time was spent with family and friends. It was also the dead of winter, when inclement weather and cold kept people indoors for days on end. Snowfall covered the ground outside the Zaremba home during the 1930 holiday season. The family was together for what would turn out to be the last time. This was not because of separation, but murder. Close to midnight on December 30th, fourteen year old Stanislaw Zaremba was startled from his sleep by a cry from the family dog. Fearing thieves, he slowly made his way down the hall in the direction from which the cry had come. What he saw next was a strange sight. Near the family Christmas tree, stood Rita wearing a fur coat over the top of her nightgown. She stared at him in silence then quickly left the room by ascending a staircase.
Stanislaw then called out for Lusia, but no answer was forthcoming. He went to her room and knocked on the door, still no answer. He took upon it himself to enter the room. In the bed he could see the outline of her motionless body. Her head was covered with a pillow. When he removed the pillow, his eyes were assaulted by a terrifying scene. Lusia’s skull was covered in blood and her neck was horribly twisted. Her body was still warm, but she was dead. Tragically, the end had come much too soon for the seventeen year old Lusia. Conversely, the horror had just begun for her family.