Hell On Wheels – Lviv To Kiev By Train: Eastern Questions (Travels In Eastern Europe #50)

After a sleepless night listening to the excesses of drunken youth I felt a sense of relief to be departing from my hostel in Lviv. Despite the considerable effort it took for me to rouse the besotted front desk clerk from an alcohol induced slumber, I did manage to have him call a taxi which arrived right on time. The sun had yet to rise over the city, so an endless series of street lights guided the taxi’s way to the train station. My zombie like state was worsened by the glaring blur of fluorescence. With my head screaming I arrived at the station a little too early. My train to Kiev would now leave for another 45 minutes. I dragged myself into the waiting room, hoping to stay awake long enough to not miss my train. I was surprised to find the waiting room packed with people before dawn. The station had been just as crowded when I arrived late in the night three days earlier. The place had also been packed a day earlier when I purchased my ticket to Kiev.

The way to Kiev from Lviv

The way to Kiev from Lviv

Waiting Games – States Of Unreality
I began to wonder if the station acted as a permanent residence for a subset of Lvivians. It would have made a great short story. These people always on the verge of leaving, filled with hope and expectation of new beginnings. Unfortunately they could never find their way to the platform. They were stuck in an eternal waiting room. This idea was intriguing and depressing, sounding a bit too much like life. I picked my way through the would be passengers, stepping over their baggage and bundles. I spied a vacant seat beside a sleeping woman, curled in the fetal position, taking up two seats for herself. Not long after taking a seat I smelled a foul odor. In my sleepless sensory state I had trouble discerning whether it was body odor or coming from the station itself. I looked down at the woman lying on the seats beside me. From what I could make out of her shriveled figure, she looked to be a bit grungy. I began to wonder if she was a passenger or a vagrant.

About this time, a policeman who was making rounds through the waiting room walked up to her and proceeded to smack her half-heartedly with a baton. The jolted her, she looked up at him and tried to ignore this signal. He then stopped, looked at her again and gave her a harder smack. He then followed this with some harsh words. The woman, who happened to be ethnically Roma, raised herself up, scratched her head and after a couple of minutes left the seat. For all of Lviv’s architectural beauty, I could also see how it was part of a developing country. Poverty was in plain view and the police were brutish. In countries further west such as Hungary and Slovakia I had seen Roma begging in public transport stations, but the police tended to ignore them. In Ukraine, they offered an opportunity for a cop to exorcise his frustrations.

Running The Rails – A Soviet Scaffold
Bleary eyed, head throbbing, silently shaking, unable to think straight or for that matter at all, I boarded the train for Kiev Pas, the Ukrainian capital city’s main station. It would be a six-hour journey, but in my current state I would have been fine with a 12 hour journey. All I wanted to do was sleep and periodically wake up to have a look at the Ukrainian countryside. I had a second-class ticket, but from the looks of it everything was second class on this train. The seats were cheap leather with no arm rests, the passenger accommodations spartan with no hint of luxury or provisions made for comfort. I had little doubt that this train car came from the Soviet era. That was not all bad for Ukraine, since the Soviet Union at one time had been an empire that could afford to spend much more on infrastructure.

The nation of Ukraine had inherited a vast railway network. That was a good thing, since the country’s politicians and upper classes had spent the first two decades of independence stealing almost anything of value. Every time I saw anything rundown that was part of the public sphere I immediately thought to myself “the money to improve it must have been stolen.” Two years after my first visit to Ukraine, the people had enough of the systemic corruption and revolted. Speaking of revolts, as the train started moving down the track I began to second guess this trip to Kiev.

Despotism Before Democracy – A State Of Lawlessness & Disorder
Despite or perhaps because of my exhausted state, I was a nervous wreck, both worried and excited to be traveling eastward from Lviv. I was now moving further away from Europe culturally, economically and politically. Central and eastern Ukraine were heavily influenced by one big mother, in the form of Russia. Russia is neither completely European or Asian, it is a hybrid. Though Ukraine is officially the largest nation inside Europe, prior to the Maidan Revolution, it tilted more to the east than the west. This eastern orientation meant despotic rather than democratic government, oligarch dominated economies, the rule of lawlessness and disorder. I was unsure how any of this would affect me. The poor governance was too opaque for someone as unimportant as me to worry about, the oligarchs were people best avoided unless I took to valuing dishonesty and violence.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s lawlessness could not be ignored. In Lviv, which was reputedly much better run than the rest of Ukraine, I noticed on several occasions that the police looked menacing. They seemed to exist outside of public control, wandering about looking tough and edgy. One English speaking Lvivian I met told me they were terrified of the police, but that fear was matched by a corresponding hatred. I did my best to avoid any encounters with law enforcement. That was something I likely would not have to worry about on this train, but there were more personal concerns, such as the bathroom.

A Secret That’s Been Passed Around – The Discovery of Lviv: Mass Tourism (Travels In Eastern Europe #49)

When I think back on my first visit to Lviv, I find it almost impossible to consider that trip without also reflecting on the last time I visited the city, three more trips and four years later. During the interim, Lviv had hosted matches for the Euro 2012 Football Championships, been buffeted by the economic and political tumult of the Maidan Revolution, seen remarkable growth in its burgeoning Information Technology industry and become a major tourist destination. It was the latter change that would become most visible to me. The Lviv I visited in 2011 was still a rather sleepy place for foreign visitors. I remember thinking “everyone should see this place.”

When I would tell friends or family to visit Lviv, they would recoil in shock at the mere mention of Ukraine. They could hardly believe I had been brazen enough to visit that ill-fated land. I told them Lviv was different from stereotypical Ukraine, it had more cultural and historical connections with Mitteleuropa than Moscow. It was the furthest eastern extent of the Renaissance, the old Polish Kingdom and Austria-Hungary. It was a new and different Ukraine, one filled with hope and possibility, leaning towards the west. Of course, I said all this in the knowledge that my advocacy for Lviv was falling on deaf ears. The city could not escape Ukraine and its dangerous reputation or so I thought.

A sense of direction in Lviv

A sense of direction in Lviv (Credit: Buka – Власна робота/)

Charm Offensive – The Old Town Imagined Anew
In the fall of 2015 I found out the meaning of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I said everybody should see Lviv and it this wish had been granted. Lviv was packed with tourists on the weekend of my arrival in the latter part of October, not a time usually known for heavy visitation. At certain points in the Old Town I was standing elbow to elbow in crowds. I heard as much Polish as Ukrainian being spoken. The cafes and coffee houses had a refined, sleek veneer. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks were pristine, some of the trams looked as though they had been transported from the space age and the smart, immaculately kept shops could just as easily have been in France or Germany rather than Ukraine. Lviv had been “discovered”. To find any hint that only twenty-five years before Lviv had been part of the Soviet Union, I would have had to flee the city center. Most tourist establishments used Latin as well as Cyrillic script in their signage now. Lviv’s Old Town looked so smart, tidy and trendy that I wondered if it had ever or never looked this way. Lviv was managing to charm the masses with a reinterpretation of itself.

The Lviv I first visited in 2011 had yet to realize its full tourist potential. Outside of the Old Town, signage in Latin script or written in English was scarce in the extreme. The amount of English spoken was even rarer. The Old Town at that time was evocative rather than electric. The range of accommodation on offer was limited, with few good hostels. Tourist information in English could be found, but only after searching. Except for the locals, I felt as though I had the city to myself back then. Mass tourism was a thing of the future. 2011 was a time when I could stroll the narrow streets, four years later I would jostle my way through them. I could hardly blame Lviv for this transformation, it was cultivating Old World charm in a bid to boost its economy. A reminder of this came blaringly loud at strange intervals, as a trumpet played a few notes that seemed to signify some sort of medieval sounding call. I had heard much the same thing in Krakow four years earlier, Lviv was becoming more like its bigger, more well-known Galician sister city.

The Logo Says It All

The Logo Says It All

Come Together – The Lure Of Lviv
In the interim, Lviv had inadvertently managed to gain from the instability in Kiev and unrest in the eastern part of Ukraine that started with Maiden. Through no fault of its own, Lviv was some 1,200 hundred kilometers away from the violence consuming parts of the Donbas region. This made Lviv one of the safest places to live, invest or visit in Ukraine. When the Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) plummeted in the wake of Maidan, Lviv became one of the best values for domestic and foreign tourists. Domestic tourists could no longer afford to go abroad, so instead they traveled to the most European city in Ukraine which also happened to call itself the most Ukrainian. The weekend of my arrival there was a living history reenactment of the street fighting which occurred during the 1918 Battle of Lemberg (Lviv’s Austrian name) following World War I.

The reenactment took place in Rynok Square which was packed with Ukrainian and Polish tourists looking on. It was strange watching a battle reenactment in a country that was currently at war. It was stranger still that Ukrainians and Poles stood side by side watching. Once blood enemies, they were now united in their fear of a resurgent Russia or quite possibly they were just looking to be entertained while on holiday. Tourism and marketing had brought hundreds of people into Rynok Square that day. City leaders are hoping to lure tens of thousands more to follow in their footsteps.  As much as I selfishly would like Lviv to be the way I found it in 2011, there is little hope of that. The same year of my last visit – 2015 – the city hosted two million visitors for the first time ever. Such increases led to the creation of 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the last several years. With much faster rail links to Krakow and Kiev, the tourist numbers are only going to increase.

Waiting on the future in Lviv

Waiting on the future in Lviv

A Selfish Desire – Old World Beauty
My memory of that first visit to an uncrowded Lviv is still vivid, wandering around a spacious Rynok Square, the churches empty except for the locals and restaurants hoping for a few more patrons. That moment is now as much history as anything else in Lviv. I had been fortunate to visit the city before millions of tourists smoothed the cobbled streets with their foot traffic. Yet my perspective has become skewed by a selfish desire to want Lviv all to myself. If I am honest, I was just as much a part of the increase in tourist numbers as the masses I profess to loathe. By the time I arrived in Lviv, it had been transformed from a crumbling, neglected Ukrainian provincial city, to a vibrant Old World beauty. A city that millions would come to visit, just as I did. My “discovery” of Lviv was like learning a secret, only to later learn that it’s been passed around.

Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #5 Destiny – Solomiya Krushelnytska: Voices In The Background  

It was a voice destined to be heard by millions, a siren’s call that was heard across the world. In opera houses from Odessa to Ottawa, Naples to New York she performed before adoring crowds entranced by the strains of her sonorous vocals. She filled the halls with sounds of romance and yearning, pouring out her heart at each performance. During her lifetime she was received with acclaim. In the birthplace of opera, Italy, she single-handedly rescued Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. It was this and hundreds of other masterful performances that caused critics to deem her one of the greatest sopranos of all time. This was quite an accomplishment for a woman born in a provincial outpost, a tiny village in the poorest part of an empire that would eventually collapse. During her lifetime she lived under empires, republics and occupations with wildly varying systems of freedom and tyranny. Yet no ideology ever harmed her spirit, she was too singular and transcendent. After being trapped in the most lethal place on earth during World War II, she emerged unscathed. Her talent was incomparable, her voice unforgettable and her life untouchable. She was Solomiya Krushelnytska, one of the greatest soprano opera singers ever, a woman who sang her way from the far eastern frontier of Austria-Hungary to ornate opera halls around the world.

Solomiya Krushelnytska - a beautiful voice, a beautiful life

Solomiya Krushelnytska – a beautiful voice, a beautiful life

A Remarkable Rise – From Galicia With Love
Solomiya Krushelnytska’s life began far from the fame, glitter and glory of the opera world. She hailed from one of 19th century Europe’s most rural and impoverished regions, the far southeastern portion of the Austrian administered province of Galicia. To say she came from a backwater would be an understatement. Her birthplace, Biliavyntsi, was a small village deep in the countryside. A place that was notable for nothing. Krushelnytska’s family was part of the lower Ukrainian nobility. Her father, a priest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, held one of the most prestigious positions in the tiny village. The young Krushelnytska spent her first years within earshot of Ruthenian peasants singing folk songs while working the fields. At the age of five her family moved to another village on the edge of the region’s largest city, Ternopil. It was only a city relative to its rural surroundings. The population was only 20,000. Yet it was here that Krushelnytska first took the stage at the tender age of eleven. Her remarkable singing ability brought attention and recognition. She was soon sent to the Galician metropolis of Lviv, to further her education at the city’s conservatory. There she received a superb education in the performing arts.

The early period of Krushelnytska’s life culminated with her first professional performance at the Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet. This actually occurred before her graduation from the conservatory. She won critical acclaim for her performance, singing the mezzo-soprano in Donizetti’s La Favorita (The Favorite), while playing the King of Castile, Alfonso XI’s mistress Leonora. This and several other performances in Lviv gained her notice by the master Italian female soprano and opera diva, Gemma Bellincioni. With Bellincioni’s encouragement Krushelnytska traveled to Italy where she furthered her education in opera, both at school and on the stage in Milan. By the turn of the 20th century her career had soared into superstardom. Lviv had been a launching pad to greatness for Krushelnytska. She could not have suspected at the time that over four and a half decades later she would return to the city and become trapped there for the rest of her life.

Solomiya Krushelnytska and her husband Cesare Riccioni

Solomiya Krushelnytska and her husband Cesare Riccioni

Echoes Of Greatness – A Beautiful & Precarious Life
Between 1900 and 1939 Solimiya Krushelnytska reached the pinnacle of artistic achievement. She was able to perform no less than 63 parts in eight different languages. She took the stage in all the major opera houses in northern Africa, North America, South America and Europe. In the early 1920’s she set her opera career aside to begin what would become a highly successful concert career. Her personal life blossomed as well. She married an Italian lawyer, Cesare Riccioni in Buenos Aires. He was also the mayor of the city she called home during these years, Via Reggio, on the northwestern coast of Italy. From their house she could see the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean. It was a life of accomplishment and accolades, far from the unsettled atmosphere of her homeland which had become part of the Second Republic of Poland. She did keep a residence in Lviv, where first her family and later on, intellectuals, artists and singers stayed.

Following her husband’s death in the late 1930’s, Krushelnytska decided to return to her multi-story home on the edge of what is today Ivan Franko Park. It was the fall of 1939, the worst time possible to return. She became trapped in the city when Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union attacked Poland. After the city was turned over to the Soviets, Krushelnytska suffered under the occupation. Her home was nationalized, with several floors taken up by the Soviet military. She and her family were left to reside on an upper floor. This was a far cry from the beautiful life she had enjoyed along the Italian coast. The days of resounding applause, star struck crowds and critical acclaim were a thing of the past. Her destiny was no longer greatness, but just trying to survive.

Soon the city changed hands and so did her home. The Nazis set up where the Soviets had been. Her beautiful voice was drowned out by gunfire. Krushelnytska could only wait, but at least she was alive unlike hundreds of thousands of other Lvivans. Reverence for her talent and the fact she was an ethnic Ukrainian likely helped her escape the ultraviolence which rampaged through the city during this time. One can only imagine what Krushelnytska felt and thought during the war. After a lifetime of glitterati she was stuck near the center of one of the most dangerous places on earth. All she could do now was sing for herself or small audiences. She was now only one of many voices in the background waiting and hoping the war would end.

Grave of Solomiya Krushelnytska in Lviv's Lychakiv Cemetery

Grave of Solomiya Krushelnytska in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery (Credit: D.Rovchak)

Iron Curtain Call – Starcrossed Solomiya
Eventually the Soviets retook the city. This time they would stay. In a strange turnabout, nothing was taken from Krushelnytska this time. Instead something was given. She was offered and accepted a position as a professor at the Lviv Conservatory, the place where she had gained her first real schooling in the arts of music, opera and high culture. Her life had come full circle. She would spend her final years in the same place her rise to fame and fortune had begun, once Austrian Galician now Soviet Ukraine. She was no longer a star, just a teacher with an incredible legacy. One of the all-time greats, she could no longer be seen on the starlit stages of Rome, Milan or Paris. Solomiya Krushelnytska was only to be found in Lviv, her voice making its final calls from behind an iron curtain.

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #3 Myth – The Golden Rose Saves A Synagogue

Like every great nation, every great city has its myths. Lviv is no different. The city is home to an enduring myth, one so powerful that it has actually managed to outlast the destruction of its subject. The myth is based on the Golden Rose Synagogue, a structure that historically was Lviv’s most famous Jewish house of worship. The synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, but the story of how it avoided another mortal threat centuries earlier still survives today. Whether this story is true or not is beside the point. Myths are based on what people want to believe and also on what they need to believe. They shape a narrative of history that often casts their subject in the best light, illuminating virtuous traits and deeply held values. Myths appeal because they play to people’s fantasies. Unlike academic history, they tell really good stories that are easily recalled. All of these traits can be found in Lviv’s Legend of the Golden Rose.

Painting of the Golden Rose Synagogue

Painting of the Golden Rose Synagogue by Odo Dobrowolski in 1912

The Jesuits Versus The Jews – Battling For The Site Of A Synagogue
The Golden Rose synagogue was commissioned by a powerful Jewish financier Izak Nachmanowicz in 1581. The following year an Italian master architect, Paulus Italus, began the design and construction process that took over a decade to complete. The synagogue was built for as a private house of worship for Nachmanowicz and those closest to him. At the time, he was head of Lviv’s Jewish assembly. The synagogue was first named after its founder. This would be one of three names given to it. The second name was Turei Zahav (“The Golden Lines”), which came from a treatise on Judaic religious law by the famous Jewish scholar Rabbi David Ha-Segal, who spent a considerable amount of time in the synagogue praying and thinking during the middle of the 17th century. The most enduring name for the synagogue, the Golden Rose, came last and endured the longest.

The legend behind the Golden Rose begins in 1603. The Jesuits were searching for a site within the city walls of Lviv to build a large stone church. This structure would be much more impressive than the wooden chapel they had previously used.  The problem was that very little land was available within the city walls. The city did not want to give the Jesuits a plot of land because church property was exempt from taxes. Taking a large plot off the tax rolls would damage city finances. The city and the Jesuits were at an impasse. The Jesuits appealed to the Polish King at the time, Sigismund III, to intervene. This was a smart move in their favor since he was also a Jesuit. The king broke the deadlock in the Jesuits favor, deeding them a large plot of land in the Jewish district.

A scene outside the Golden Rose Synagogue as painted by Alfred Kamienobrodzki

The Legend Lives On – A scene outside the Golden Rose Synagogue as painted by Alfred Kamienobrodzki

Rosa For Her People – The Ultimate Sacrifice
Among the buildings already on the site was the Nachmanowicz Synagogue. The importance of this building to the Jewish community would seem to preclude all other claims. This was not to be the case as the Jesuits produced documentation showing that the land had once been owned by a Catholic priest. The Jesuits now had the king on their side as well as a legal argument for their right to ownership. The case was heard in court, with a decision made against the Jews. This was too much for the Jewish community to bear. Their most important sacral structure was about to be taken away from them.  At this point the generally agreed upon facts end, what comes next is more story and less history.

With no legal recourse left to them, Lviv’s Jews thought the synagogue was lost forever. That is when a widowed daughter-in-law of Nachmanowicz by the name of Rosa decided to take action. First she offered up her own considerable wealth to purchase the site. The Jesuit bishop would only consider this deal if Rosa made the offer to him in person. And so she did. The bishop was immediately taken aback by her awe inspiring beauty. He agreed to return the synagogue back to the Jewish community on one condition, that Rosa was to stay with him. In a selfless act to benefit her people she agreed to the bishop’s demand. The Jesuits rescinded their rights to the synagogue. The Jewish community gained possession of the site for good. The unfortunate Rosa was now the bishop’s property, but not for long. During their first night together the relationship was consummated, but in the darkest hours of the night Rosa ingested poison. She died shortly thereafter. Her sacrifice of wealth and life for the spiritual sustenance of her people became the stuff of legend. In the process Rosa gained a fame that has lasted much longer than her life. She was the Golden Rose that the synagogue would be named after.

The Golden Rose Synagogue

More Than A Myth – The Golden Rose Synagogue in 1901

Mythological Proportions – A Golden Rose Grows
Can this story be true? Like all great myths it is ambiguous and contains many kernels of the truth. This is a story that roughly fits the framework of the facts. Rosa was a real person who was related by marriage to Nachmanowicz. The Jesuits were all powerful at the time. They had both the king and legal system on their side. Only a transcendent power could have changed their minds. Rosa’s mysterious beauty and sublime selflessness worked like magic. Myths often blend human and supernatural elements together. These were embodied in the persona of Rosa. She could work wonders or so the listener is led to believe. The facts say otherwise. The real wonder worker was a bribe of 20,600 guilders that was paid by the Jewish community to the Jesuits. It is easy to see why this one fact always gets overlooked. It does not speak of cleverness, guile and mysterious beauty. Instead it says that possession has a price and money decides matters. Would any community want to be seen as giving in to extortion? The Legend of the Golden Rose is just the opposite.  Selflessness and sacrifice was how the Jewish community of Lviv wanted to be seen. Rosa and the Legend of the Golden Rose represent that community, a powerful statement of values that has grown to mythological proportions.

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #2 Fate – Love In Flames: The Execution Of Injustice

In the imagination, Old Lviv was as an ideal city of quaint cobblestone streets, spectacular Renaissance architecture, ornately decorated churches and brightly colored tenement houses, a place of devotion, wealth and tradition. The city walls proscribed the boundaries of a tidy burg infused with charm and grandeur. To be sure there was some of that, but Old Lviv was also a place of inborn prejudices, rigid social hierarchies and segregated living spaces. Where the haves held all the power, while the have nots had very limited freedom. Intolerance was a way of life. The threat of death was constant, either at the hands of invaders – Lviv suffered numerous sieges – or more likely, due to disease.

In comparison to the present day, this was a dangerous world. Life was short and precarious. Then there was the law, which was marked by rigidity, tradition and penal in the extreme. Torture was often used to extract confessions. Verdicts were harsh and the punishment even worse.  For those who failed to obey the status quo, justice could be swift and severe. This was not a world for the sentimental or romantic. Even falling in love could bring the cruelest of consequences. Such a case of fatal romantic bliss occurred in Lviv during this time.

Old Lviv - a place of grandeur and rough justice

Old Lviv – a place of grandeur and rough justice

Of Passion & Prejudice – A Renaissance Regression
There is nothing more endearing than two people who love each other so much that they refuse to be kept apart. A couple so smitten with one another that they cannot control their passion and will sacrifice everything in the pursuit of love. Such romances seem to be a product of destiny, but they can also be ill-fated. This was the situation in late 16th century Lviv when an Armenian widower and a young Polish woman fell hopelessly in love. By today’s standards their romance would not be problematic, but according to the laws of the time they were committing mortal sin. Such a relationship was considered a crime due to their religious affiliations. This would lead to the harshest of punishments.

The love affair occurred at a time when religion was as much a marker of identity as ethnicity. Though both were of the Catholic faith, practitioners of the Armenian and Polish branches of the religion were seen as incompatible. Interfaith romantic relationships or marriages were strictly forbidden. This would threaten the very fabric of society. Division was the organizing basis of Lviv’s Renaissance–era society. Paradoxically, this was what held the society together or so it was believed. Within the city walls of Old Lviv was a completely segregated society based on class, religion, ethnicity and profession. One marker of identity often informed another. For example, ethnic Germans were wealthy burghers, ethnic Poles mainly aristocrats and ethnic Armenians merchants and tradesmen. There were separate quarters for Armenians, Jews, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), while the Poles and Germans dominated Rynok Square. Everyone was supposed to know their rigidly proscribed role. This was a microcosm of central and eastern European societies prior to the Enlightenment.

A Crime Of Love – The Condemnation of Passion
The two lovers, Ivashko and Zofia, were charged with committing a serious criminal offence. There was no denying the couple’s passion. It was obvious that the two were under the spell of love.  What were the judges going to do? They were the guardians of social order. The couple were convicted and sentenced to death by burning. The judges of Lviv decided to make a searing example out of the couple. The ensuing verdict was to be a warning to anyone contemplating such romantic endeavors. Though they had lived and loved inside the city walls, as commoners they could not be executed within them, that dubious honor for the condemned only pertained to aristocrats. The couple would be executed atop a hill outside the city walls, a display of the harshest penal justice for everyone to see. The only solace for the two lovers is that they would be together in their final moments, chained to each other back to back, bound in death, as they were in life by their love.

The fateful day arrived. The condemned were brought to the execution site. A pile of firewood had been prepared for the couple to stand upon. Each of them clutched a torch. When these were lit, the firewood would ignite. The lovers would be helping light the fire that was to consume them. There is no record of any last words between them. Despite their public humiliation and the terrible pain that was about to ensue, the couple may have found solace in each other’s company. Their greatest hope had been to consummate their love in marriage, to be together forever in life. Fate in the form of a terrible justice had intervened. They were bound together in death. The torches were lit. In a matter of moments the two were ablaze and soon dead. There has rarely been a more tragic end to a romantic affair.

Intolerance For The Masses – Life In Old Lviv
Despite the horrific nature of this ill-fated romance there is still much to be learned from the story. The good old days were not very good at all. Life was precarious at best and deadly at worst. The history that still stands today in the city from the Renaissance era is magnificent, but also gives a false impression of life during that time. Most of the city’s inhabitants were commoners doing their best to survive. They did not live in pastel painted, multi-story tenement houses or commission beautiful works of architecture. For the commoner, eking out a hard scrabble existence was the best they might expect. The law was against them. The justice system existed to benefit the few over the many. Keeping such a system in place meant heavy handed laws and brutal punishments. Racism, religious intolerance and economic inequality were rife. Fortunately this system eventually crumbled, but not before an innocent couple suffered an unjust and tragic fate. Today Lviv is known as much as anything for being a city of romance, a place where love affairs blossom. The citizens are free to live and free to love. This is quite the opposite of Old Lviv where there was nothing really romantic about life, especially when it came to love.





The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #1 Obsession – Antoni Schneider & The Encyclopedia Of Everything

A good argument could be made that obsession is little more than ambition taken to extremes, ambition to do something way beyond what has ever been done before. Obsessions by their very nature are all consuming. Thus obsessives find their lives for better or worse (usually worse) ruled by a person or goal they have become fixated upon. The obsession rules the person rather than the other way around. In effect they become a slave to their obsession. At some point they usually come to regret their obsession, wishing they could eradicate it from their thoughts and memory. This is impossible until the obsession has run its course. Obsessives are capable of doing great things, achieving the impossible. Conversely, they are more often than not, defeated by the impossible. The problem with obsessives is that they believe less in themselves, than they believe in their obsession. One of the greatest obsessives in the history of Lviv was a man by the name of Antoni Schneider. He imagined a project of such scale that it scarcely seemed possible. That did not stop Schneider from trying to create and eventually be defeated by The Encyclopedia of Expertise On Galicia.

An Exhaustive Encyclopedia of a Make Believe Province
The Austrian administered province known as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria was just short of a hundred years old when Schneider announced his project in 1868. While the land that made up the province had existed since time immemorial, the idea of the Kingdom was created from an old and obscure claim made new. The Austrians took the name from a medieval title held by King Andrew II of Hungary who had conquered the region during the 12th century. Though the Hungarian crown lost the land in rather short order, the title came in handy for the Austrians over 500 years later. They felt the need to show a legitimate historical claim to the region. This was in response to the fact that they had taken the region in the first partition of Poland. To rule the inhabitants, they needed legitimacy. Since Austria also ruled Hungary, they decided to excavate the old Hungarian claim to the kingdom from the dustbin of history. The Austrians spent a considerable amount of time and effort recreating Galicia in their own image. In this way they made history and also made it up.

Antoni Schneider

Antoni Schneider – An excessive man with an obsessive mind

A multi-volume encyclopedia cataloging in exhaustive detail every aspect of the province would further legitimize Galicia. Schneider’s idea was his own, but it was certainly informed by this process. The encyclopedia would be a mammoth undertaking. Schneider was to shoulder nearly all of a superhuman workload. It would provide holistic coverage of the province, with everything from history to statistics to scientific topics receiving in-depth coverage. He professed that the encyclopedia was his way of paying homage to his “fatherland”. This seeming labor of imperial love came from a man who two decades before had been part of open rebellion against the Habsburgs. Oddly enough, Schneider was ethnically half-German and half-Polish, but the encyclopedia was to be a Polish language work. This made sense from both a political and readership stand point. Political, since the province had just gained autonomous status. Poles would heretofore be the ruling and administrative class in Galicia. To gain a wide readership it would be written in Polish, since that was now going to be the lingua franca of the province.

A Most Ambitious Madness
One can only speculate to the degree that manic imagination and frenetic energy played a role in Schneider’s conception of the project. He was largely self-taught. Due to family financial woes he was unable to complete high school. For a time he worked as a clerk for a literary journal, gaining some valuable real world experience in the writing profession. Schneider then became caught up in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution fighting on the side of rebellion. This landed him in jail, but it turned into a fortuitous stroke of luck. He shared a prison cell with a Hungarian historian, Joseph Teleki. Their conversations must have encouraged him to do research and learn more about the past. After he was freed, Schneider toured the countryside around Lviv taking an interest in among other things, castles and ruins. Then in the 1860’s he started publishing articles of stories about places in Galicia. This all led up to the encyclopedia that was to provide a one stop resource for detailed knowledge of almost any subject pertaining to Galicia. The fact that one man conceived and then attempted to carry out this idea speaks volumes about Schneider’s mindset.

Cover to Antoni Schenider's Guide to Lwów - published in 1871

Cover to Antoni Schenider’s Guide to Lwów – published in 1871

Unfortunately even the most enduring obsession has its limits.  Schneider openly stated that the project would take thirty years to complete. That turned out to be a low estimate as the actual production of the first two volumes would show. The volume dealing with letter A took three years to write and was published in 1871. In the same year Schneider also published a Guide to Lwów (Polish name for Lviv). The letter B volume appeared in 1874. At this rate the entire project would take another 72 years to complete. In 1874 Schneider was already 49 years old. Sometime during these years it must have dawned on him that there was no way he would ever complete the encyclopedia. The euphoria he had first experienced with his grandiose dream abated. Subscriptions to the encyclopedia lagged. There was a decided lack of public interest. It turned into an all or nothing enterprise. Sure volumes A and B had been completed, but this was only equivalent to less than ten percent of the entire project. What was the use of doing a volume C? It was just another drop of knowledge in an unfathomable ocean of information.

The Darkest Side Of Obsession
Schneider’s dream descended into darkness. It was a failure made that much worse by obsession. His life had become the encyclopedia, without it he was nothing. He was unable to come close to finishing the project, even though he continued collecting information for every subject of note. His information gathering expanded to the history of the Bukovina province, adjacent to Galicia. All of this work has provided a rich archival source that is still used by researchers today, but what good did that do Schneider at the time? His thoughts of the future would have been aligned with the fact that his life’s work could never be completed. In 1880, he committed suicide by shooting himself. This was the final, mortal blow to a dream that had died long before. Schneider had not been able to finish his work, but it had finished him.

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.

Sometime Around Midnight: The Murder of Lusia Zaremba – Lviv’s Most Famous Crime Part 1 (Lviv: The History of Just One City Part 54)

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.

Lusia Zaremba's grave in Lychakiv Cemetery

Lusia Zaremba’s grave in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery (Credit: Wikipedia)

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.

In happier times - Rita Gorgonowa with Stanislaw Zaremba, her daughter Romana and Lusia Zaremba

In happier times – Rita Gorgonowa with Stanislaw Zaremba, her daughter Romana and Lusia Zaremba

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 Zaremba residence

The Zaremba residence where the murder occurred close to midnight on December 30, 1930

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.


Having The Quality Of A Bad Dream –A Teenager’s Memories Of The Soviet Occupation of Lwów (Lviv: The History Of One City Part 53)

Exactly a week before Christmas in 1927 Stanislaw Szyblski was born into wealth and privilege. The second son of a highly cultured family in Lwów (Lviv’s Polish name), he would live an idyllic childhood filled with warmth and love. Unfortunately, his teenage years turned out to be the opposite of his childhood. Lwów was caught in the cross hairs of the Second World War, suffering every horror imaginable, combat, pogroms and occupation. Stanislaw grew up fast as he learned to dodge bombs and the occupation authorities while bartering for the necessities of life. He and his family were able to survive through their wits and guile, but ended up fleeing the city prior to the Red Army’s reoccupation in 1944. They had no illusions about what a second Soviet occupation would mean after barely surviving the first one. That first occupation, from 1939 -1941, is recounted in Lwów – A City Lost: Memories of a Cherished Childhood authored by Stanislaw’s daughter, Eva. In a series of vignettes the surreal nature of the Soviet occupation is conveyed through stories of what life was like when one of the most depraved and bizarre regimes in history controlled Lwów.

Lwow - A City Lost

Lwow – A City Lost is an engaging collection of Stanislaw Szyblski’s childhood memories of the city from 1927 – 1944

The Real “Stab In The Back” – Poland & Lwów Betrayed
The plight of interwar Poland leading up to and including the first months of World War II might best be explained by “the stab in the back.” In this context, the phrase has a dual meaning. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used the phrase to express their belief that Germany did not lose World War I, instead they were stabbed in the back by Jews and Socialists. This lie helped Hitler take the German nation to war. They would seek vengeance for the supposed wrong done to them. The Second World War started with an attack on Poland. The shame and humiliation felt by Germany would now be imposed on their eastern neighbor. As part of this campaign for vengeance, bombs were dropped on Lwów, causing a teenage Stanislaw Szybalski to hide with the rest of his family in a basement. The geo-political became personal. This was just the beginning of further horrors to come.

A “stab in the back” for Poland took place soon thereafter as it was invaded by the Red Army advancing from the east. This was the product of a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin, whereby the Soviets would get free reign in eastern Poland for not opposing German aggression in the rest of the nation. This stab in the back would lead to years of repercussions for families such as the Szybalski’s. Their wealth and prominence made them targets for the Soviet regime. They were in the cross hairs of class warfare, enemies of the state in waiting. They were lucky to escape deportation or worse. During this time Stanislaw witnessed how the Soviet regime bent and warped society to the point that everyday life became a series of misadventures. Strange and paradoxical circumstances became the norm as Stanislaw’s family did whatever they could to survive.

Soviet cavalry on parade in Lwów

Soviet cavalry on parade in Lwów following occupation of the city in the autumn of 1939

Strange Luxuries – Stealing At A Moderate Rate
There were those in the city who saw the Soviet occupation as a good thing, whether they be communist sympathizers or rapacious opportunists. Some of these would be collaborators could not hide their joy when the Red Army marched into the city. They took to the streets to greet them. This small crowd was met with a volley of gunfire, as the soldiers thought they were being attacked. This resulted in multiple dead and wounded. While tragic, what else was to be expected from soldiers that were little than an armed rabble. Stanislaw remembered how “the men were in a horrible state; unshaven, dirty, wearing filthy uniforms…their guns were hanging from simple twine.” Stalin’s foot soldiers helped themselves to the consumer goods and material wealth of Lwów. The soldiers were children in a fantasy world, barbarians who had broken through the gates of a capitalist heaven. They proceeded to sack and pillage with little regard for the inhabitants. This left the store shelves barren except for a few strange “luxuries.”

According to Stanislaw, the shops were empty “with the exception of the cheapest sort of tobacco, made from leftovers, and to go with it, you were able to buy matches and vinegar.” In occupied Lwów survival was a matter of being inventive, opportunistic and clever. Like everything else during the Soviet occupation these traits were turned on their head since they were enhanced by theft. A Soviet scientist working with Stanislaw’s father at Lwów’s famous Typhus Institute gave him a piece of valuable advice on how to navigate the Stalinist system. “If you stole too much they locked you up, or killed you. If you didn’t steal, you were going to die of starvation. Therefore, you had to steal at a moderate rate.” This took an incredible amount of self-discipline. Unwittingly the Soviets were teaching resourcefulness in the most counter intuitive ways.

Statue of Lenin being removed after the Germans occupied Lwów in June 1941

Goodbye Lenin – statue of Lenin being removed after the Germans occupied Lwów in June 1941


Surrealism & Survival – Cheating Fate In Lwów
Daily life was dominated by the surreal. For instance, the Soviets did not give Stanislaw and his fellow students textbooks. They were to take copious notes and study these. Soon there was a shortage of notebooks. It hardly mattered since the notebooks were regularly confiscated from the students. The Soviets also attempted to impose a six day week. This only led to greater inefficiencies and more chaos. They soon gave up trying. The surreal also affected that greatest of survival instincts, hope. Hope kept people from giving up. Unfortunately this had unintended consequences. Spirits were raised when German authorities came to the city and registered ethnic Germans who would then be repatriated. Many non-ethnic Germans registered as well, hoping to escape Soviet rule, instead this delivered them up for deportation. The Soviets later got these lists from the Germans and then arrested those whose names were found on them. They were deemed “unreliables” since it was obvious that they disagreed with Soviet rule. These unfortunates were then deported to Kazakhstan.

As Stanislaw points out though, any Jews among the deported were in luck, since this helped them escape the clutches of the Nazis who were soon to come, a paradox of a paradox so to speak. Material wealth could end up as yet another double paradox. The wealthy were branded as enemies of the state by the Soviets, yet riches were also an advantage for those who managed to avoid the pillaging and deportations. Survival of the richest goes some way in explaining the Syzblski’s ability to cheat fate. For a long time, money was essentially worthless, but the bourgeoisie were not totally bankrupt. Stanislaw’s parents were able to provide for their family by trading possessions for food and living space to keep the authorities from foreclosing on their precarious existence.

The wealth of goods up for barter in Lwów could be found at a makeshift market behind the city theater. It was here that Stanislaw learned just how primitive and backward the Soviets were. He tells a story that sums up the bizarre nature of the first Soviet occupation of Lwów. “One item I recall was Polish ladies nightgowns. Soviets loved to buy them for their women who wore them as evening gowns when going to the opera or theater.” It goes without saying that a night at the opera in Lwów had a much different meaning under Soviet rule. With their “ladies” dressed in bathroom attire they went out for an evening of high culture, little did they realize that their ignorance was on display for all to see. This in essence was the Soviet occupation of Lwów, marked by the bizarre, surreal and backward. It had the quality of a bad dream, but when the city finally awoke, the nightmare regime of the Nazis was standing on its doorsteps.