Shadows of a Doubt: The Murder of Lusia Zaremba – Lviv’s Most Famous Crime Part 2 (Lviv: The History of Just One City Part 55)

From that midnight moment when Stanislaw Zaremba first saw Rita Gorgonowa standing next to the family Christmas tree and then a few minutes later discovered the still warm body of his sister Lusia, suspicion fell upon the Zaremba family’s governess and father Henryk’s lover. Police immediately arrested Rita. They also detained Henryk, his involvement in a long affair with Rita meant he could not escape suspicion. A month and a half he would be released. Rita was not that lucky. She was to be put on trial in Lwów (Polish name for Lviv), a city where public opinion was set against her from the start. The murder of a child, even if that child was seventeen years old, stoked an outpouring of emotion.

The room where Lusia Zaremba was murdered

The room where Lusia Zaremba was murdered

The Evidence Mounts – Convicted In The Courts Of Public Opinion & Poland
The fact that Rita was an outsider in the family as well as the region did not help her cause. Adding fuel to the fire was the intensely personalized nature of the violence. The murder weapon was a crude iron implement used to bust up chunks of ice. Rita vehemently declared her innocence, but there was already a rush to judgment. Much of the circumstantial evidence pointed to her as the murderer. There was her strange behavior that fatal night. After disappearing via a stairway, Rita had reappeared in another nightgown with traces of blood on her hands and shoes soaked wet. A bloody handkerchief was discovered in the basement. A test showed that it contained a different blood type than Rita’s. The police found no evidence of breaking and entering while snowfall around the house had not been disturbed by any footsteps from a stranger.

Investigators declared that the murderer was someone inside the house that night. Who else, but Rita would have done it? The family gardener was investigated and cleared of suspicion. Another potential suspect was a boy who had professed his love for Lusia. She had shown little interest in him. He was soon cleared as well. The investigators did find evidence that Lusia’s vagina had been penetrated the night she was murdered. They surmised that Rita had done this with her finger in order to make it look as though sexual assault was a motive. As for the circumstantial evidence against her, Rita had stories to explain these away. The bloody handkerchief was her menstrual rag. As for the blood on her hands, it was from cutting fish for dinner. What about the wet shoes? Rita said she had to go outside and get water in the middle of the night. The police said it was to toss the murder weapon into the pool, where they had found it. All of this came out at the trial held in Lwów’s District Court. The verdict was swift and sure, guilty sentenced to death.

Rita Gorgonowa with her defense attorney Mieczyslaw Ettinger in the courtroom

Rita Gorgonowa with her defense attorney Mieczyslaw Ettinger in the courtroom

Femme Fatale Or Loving Mother – Suspending Sentences
Ironically, the intense media interest and the fact that she was condemned pre-trial in the court of public opinion now worked in Rita’s favor. The defense fought the verdict, saying Lwów was too close in proximity both physically and emotionally to the crime. The decision was made to hold a second trial at another district court in Krakow over 300 kilometers to the west. In the meantime, another sensational aspect to the case cropped up. Rita had been in the earliest stages of pregnancy when the murder occurred. Now in prison, she had a second daughter, Ewa. Was she a femme fatale, child killer or loving mother wrongly imprisoned? Images of Rita in her jail cell holding her toddler made her look eerily sympathetic. Could this really be the woman who had repeatedly bludgeoned the love of her life’s teenage daughter to death? Little wonder that what became known as the Gorgonowa case was unsurpassed for publicity in interwar Poland.

What was considered to be a fair trial was now given to Rita? Though the location was different the crush of public interest was the same. Rita’s looks and refined dress, the image of a once beautiful lady fighting for her freedom in black furs, made her a media sensation. The retrial yielded a guilty verdict as well, but with a lighter sentence due to a revision of the Second Republic of Poland’s penal code. Rita was now sentenced to eight years in prison, with credit for time already served. She would get off much sooner though. No one in the courtroom during the second sentencing could have imagined that the darkest of forces would set Rita free before she served out her sentence. The specter of World War II was not yet threatening Poland, but over the next five years the situation would change dramatically.

Rita Gorgonowa in her prison cell with her daughter Ewa

Rita Gorgonowa in her prison cell with her daughter Ewa

Missing Persons – The Invisible Woman
Just two days after Germany declared war on Poland in September 1939, an amnesty was declared that released Rita Gorgonowa from prison. There was no emotional public opinion or intense media focus, as Poland was fighting for its existence against German forces. Rita’s fate was of little concern to anyone. Perhaps this provides some explanation for what happened next. She completely disappeared, not just from the public eye, but from everyone. What happened to her? Was she, like so many Polish civilians unlucky enough to become collateral damaged in a war that killed millions? Or did she lead a quiet life by surviving in the shadows? Rumors abounded then and still do today. One was that she ran a small sales kiosk in the city of Opole in Silesia region, far from the eastern borderlands where she had once been so infamously well known.

Another rumor had her fleeing the continent for South America. Speculation was rife then and now, but like so many things with Rita Gorgonowa’s life there are few clear answers. Ewa, the daughter born to Rita in prison made efforts in 2014 to have the case reopened, in the hopes that a retrial could change the verdict. It has not happened. Lwów is now Lviv, the Second Republic of Poland is a distant memory shadowed by the war that consumed it. The case seems trivial in light of what was later to transpire in Lwów and Poland. So much has happened since that cold, snowy midnight in the depths of December when someone entered the bedroom of Lusia Zaremba and ended her life.  The weight of evidence and the legal verdict at the time convicted Rita Gorgonowa, but like everything else with the life and times of this woman, no one will ever be quite sure.

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