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.

Facelifting Lviv – Where The Streets Had So Many Names (Lviv: The History of One City Part 52)

In 1991 Ukraine became an independent nation. For the first time ever in its long and conflicted history it had finally achieved statehood. Casting aside the yoke of foreign rule led to many changes in the nation, nowhere more so than in Lviv. Soviet symbols were quickly removed. Tourism became one of the major economic engines. The historic Old Town was renovated, along with several other areas in the city. The changes have accelerated since those heady days following the Soviet collapse. The Orange and Maiden Revolutions were acutely felt in the city as citizens spilled into the street, protesting for weeks on end to combat bad governance and corruption. Lviv gained a nickname, “the most Ukrainian city in Ukraine” due to its role as a major force in creating a national identity. One transformation brought about by Ukrainian statehood and that has surprisingly lasted has been street names. The fact that most of Lviv’s streets have kept the same name given them following Ukrainian statehood is characteristic of a degree of stability lacking in other areas of the nation, especially the East. It also just might signal the end of a centuries-long process – accelerated during the chaotic 20th century – where Lviv’s streets underwent a withering number of name changes.

Lviv directional signpost

All signs point to change – In Lviv the names have rarely stayed the same

War Changes Everything, Especially Street Names
It has been said that war is a great innovator. In the case of Lviv’s street names, war has been both a great degenerator and regenerator (portmanteau words). The degeneration occurred when street names were changed to reflect the heroes of Nazism and Stalinism. The regeneration took place as new names reflecting the dominant Ukrainian presence in the city came to grace the streets.  These name changes were far from the only ones. The situation regarding name changes has been fluid over the last couple of centuries as conquerors, whether by treaty or military force, occupied the city and proceeded to put their own superficial stamp on the city. Nowhere has this been as true as in heart of the city center.

Prospekt Svobody, the grandest boulevard in Lviv has undergone no less than 17 name changes over the past 200 years. Transliterated the current name means Liberty Avenue which seems appropriate since the boulevard was the setting for mass protests to liberate Ukraine from cronyism and corruption twice in the last twelve years. Yet for thirty-one years (1959 -1990) Prospekt Svobody was named Lenin Avenue, after a man who stood for the opposite of liberty. The same was certainly true of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator’s name was given to the boulevard for much of the German occupation of Lviv during World War II. The names of these blood soaked ideologues were added to the boulevard in due course as a symbolic reminder to Lvivians of the ideological force exercising control over the city. The first German names given to the boulevard following the invasion, Museumstrasse then Opernstrasse, were likely dropped because of their banality.

Name Calling – The Forgotten & The Famous
In prior decades the Polish presence in the city informed two martial names for the boulevard, first Hetmanska then Legionow. While both were serious and forceful names, they were much more ideologically moderate than the names of those tyrants that were to soon follow. The Habsburgs named the boulevard after a lesser light of the ruling family, a figure who today is all but overshadowed by his son. Archduke Karl Ludwig was once a name on the lips of every Lvivan who strolled along Karl Ludwig Strasse. He was the brother of Emperor Franz Josef and for a short time was part of the Galician provincial government that called Lviv home. If Karl Ludwig is remembered for anything today, it is as the father of Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination sparked the First World War.

Another famous street in Lviv has managed to have more name changes than Prospekt Svobody. Ivan Franko Street, including separate parts of it, has gone by no less than 28 names since the late 19th century. Today it is named for one of Ukraine’s most beloved sons. It is fitting that Franko, who was born in Galicia and spent part of his life in Lviv, ended up with one of the city’s most important streets named after him. Less known is the fact that Franko died lonely and impoverished in the city. Interestingly the street was named for him not after Ukrainian national independence, but following the Soviet reoccupation of the city in 1944. Franko was one of the few individuals considered a hero to both the Soviets and nationalistic Ukrainians. The Soviets recognized him for his promotion of socialism and worker’s rights. Ukrainians revere him today because he advocated for their rights, against the oppressive rule of aristocrats, capitalists and Polish elites. He received the honor of having the entire street named for him. This is unlikely to change.

Sign for Ruska Street in Lviv

One thing that has never changed – Sign for Ruska Street in Lviv (Credit: Yarema Dukh)

The Unchanged – A Place & A People
Speaking of street names unlikely to change, the endurance of Krakivska Street in the Old Town goes against the trend of name changes in Lviv. Despite the virulence of anti-Polish forces during World War II, culminating in the expulsion of ethnic Poles from the city in the war’s immediate aftermath, the street has maintained this name since the mid-15th century. In medieval times, the name denoted that this was the street which led to Krakow. The only changes to the name have been the various transliterations of it into the languages of the ruling authorities. Even the Germans called it Krakauerstrasse.

One other Old Town Street that has only experienced a bare minimum of changes is the short – both literally and physically – Ruska street, which extends from the southeast side of Rynok Square to Pidvalna Street. The name was first given in 1472. This was the main street going through the Ruthenian (a pre-20th century term for Ukrainians) section of the Old Town. There is poetic justice in the continual use of this name. It staying power is representative of the unbroken presence of the Rus’/Ruthenian/Ukrainian people throughout Lviv’s history and their ability to survive the changes both superficial and geo-political which have transformed the city. Though names, loyalties and identifications have constantly changed in Lviv, the Ukrainian people have always remained.

The Crossfires of Faith: Spiritual Militarization at Sts. Peter and Paul Garrison Church In Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City: Part 51)

Several years ago I was with an English friend in a small South Dakota town on the Great Plains. These communities are stridently patriotic. It is not uncommon to see a well-kept park with a memorial to the town’s military veterans in the center of town. There are usually several neat and tidy looking churches. At one of these, a Lutheran Church, there was a very large American flag conspicuously rippling in the unceasing prairie wind. My friend paused to look at it. He then said to me “I don’t like that. The church is supposed to keep a check on that. Nationalism has got a lot of good men killed. Churches should not be promoting that.” I often recall this comment when I am in Eastern Europe. I have been in countless churches where the national colors are hoisted close to the main altar or pulpit. Church and state seem to be inseparable. Even where the relationship is not quite as visible, churches and the military, churches and warfare in Eastern Europe are bound by history. This is certainly true for one of Lviv’s most famous churches.

Facade of Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church (Jesuit Church) in Lviv

Facade of Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church (Jesuit Church) in Lviv (Credit: Kugel)

The Church At War – Jesuits Under Fire
There is hardly a more appropriate name for a church than the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv. To most Lvivans, it is known as the Jesuit Church, a less than memorable name. The term “Garrison” speaks volumes about the church’s history, both by convention and chance. The name was given a century and a half after the church was first constructed. This happened following the Jesuit Order’s suppression by Pope Clemens II in 1773, as the church underwent a conversion whereby it began to serve the Austrian military garrison that now occupied the city. This was the first of several encounters the church would have with the military, many of these due to unlucky chances of war. During the Revolution of 1848, the Austrian military ended up bombing its own church. The roof and antechamber were damaged when they were struck by artillery shells. Such was Austrian Imperial disdain for the rebellion that their church got caught in the crossfire. This was collateral damage which could be repaired, at least in a physical sense.

While the city center of Lviv remained relatively unscathed by bombing during both world wars, the Garrison Church was not so lucky. In the Polish-Ukrainian conflict that broke out in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the roof of the church was struck. In addition, an area in front of the main altar was hit. Then in World War II, as the Soviets retook Lviv, a bomb went through the church’s roof and struck close to the altar once again. It would be a decade and a half before a new roof was constructed. By this time, the Jesuits had long since vanished from the church as had all worshipers. The church was closed for 65 years. When it finally reopened in 2011, a connection with the military was once again established when the 20th anniversary of the Ukrainian Armed Forces was celebrated. This brought the church’s relationship with the military forward into the present. The word “conflicted” best describes the garrison church’s history since the late 18th century. The time prior to that was less about conflict and more about survival.

Interior of Sts. Peter & Pauls Garrison Church in Lviv

Interior of Sts. Peter & Pauls Garrison Church in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Miracle Of Survival – Creations & Restorations
People have prayed within the Jesuit Church’s walls in search of miracles for centuries, hardly realizing that they were inside a miracle, a miracle of architecture, faith and endurance. The Garrison Church has been an inviting target since the time of its establishment. This was due to both its size and location. These attributes are indicative of the wealth and power behind the movement to build the church. The Jesuits arrived in Lviv during the late 16th century, exactly 50 years after the order was founded. As so often happened in the history of Lviv’s sacral architecture an initial wooden church gave way to a more formidable structure that signified a lasting presence. In this regard the Jesuits did not disappoint. The Sts. Peter and Paul Church took two decades to construct. Master architects were brought in from Italy to build a lasting and memorable structure. The final product was, as it still is today, one of the largest churches in the city, almost half a football field in length, rising eight and a half stories high. It could house up to 5,000 during large masses. The main façade replicated the Church of the Gesu in Rome, the first baroque facade known to history.

The rest of Sts. Peter and Paul Church did not disappoint either. It was a fascinating integration of late Renaissance and early Baroque architecture. A segue between two disparate styles, that when fused together created a basilica unlike any other. It was located at a prime, but dangerous spot within the Old Town walls, along the western side by the aptly named Jesuit Gate. This made it witness to the many sieges of the city. Yet it was not invaders, but fire that would offer the greatest threat to the church’s survival. A ferocious blaze consumed much of the original structure in 1734. A wealthy female patron and scion of the powerful Potocki family of Polish nobles, Elizabeth Potocki, came to the church’s rescue by paying for its renovation.

Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church was used as a book repository during the Soviet era

Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church was used as a book repository during the Soviet era (Credit: Wikipedia)

Systems of Belief – The Integration Of Church With State
Ideology offered yet another threat to the church from the late 18th century onward, as state trumped church with the onset of modernity. On multiple occasions the Jesuits were banished from Lviv. They were viewed as a threat to state control, whether imperial or communist. The fact that they would not toe the party line brought the order suspicion and suppression. The survival of the church was in doubt numerous times, never more so then during the years of Soviet rule. The church ended up serving as a book depository for several decades. Some of the interior’s sacral artwork degenerated, but it role as a depository saved the church from destruction. It now has been reopened and the tie between church and state is secure once again. The spiritual and political is bound together inextricably in Ukraine, for better or worse. The church does not keep a watch on the state, so much as support it. The difference between the two is blurred. The next time conflict comes to Lviv and threatens the state expect the Garrison Church to be caught in the crossfire.

Only A Name Remains – Staroievreiska: A Hole In The Heart Of Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City Part 50)

Sometimes just a name is enough to stimulate curiosity. A name that sparkles and shines as it rolls off the tongue, a name that makes a spectacle out of sound. All of this and much more comes to mind when that magically evocative word, Staroievreiska is spoken. This street, only one removed from the southern side of Rynok Square in Lviv, has it owns hidden charms and lost tragedies. It is such a pity that visitors pass by or through it with little more than a glance as they rush forth to the more popular attractions of the Old Town. Staroievreiska demands greater recognition than the indifference done to it by thousands each day. But it is less the name that is special, symbolic and tragic, more so the place. What it has been and what it has become explains Staroievreiska’s deceptive allure.

Staroievreiska in Lviv - one of many names that has been given to the street

Staroievreiska in Lviv – one of many names that has been given to the street

Disappearing Acts – Hints Of A Different Past
While the name may evoke beauty, mystery and tragedy, the street that is now called Staroievreiska had a less than eventful beginning. Its earliest history is a bit downtrodden if not disappointing. The first records documenting the streets existence state that it was home to a cattle market, thus it went by the name of Bydleca Street (Bydleca is the Polish word for cattle). This was the first of many names that would change along with the street’s limits throughout the centuries. Today Staroievreiska runs from Mitskevycha Square to Arsenalna Street, making it one of the longest streets in the center of Lviv. This current length is a relatively recent development. Until the latter part of the 19th century it consisted of three separate streets, that all went by different names. Even after it was turned into a single street the names continued to change.  In 1990 Staroievreiska became the ninth and for now, final name of the street.

While evocative, the name also has darker connotations. Literally translated it means “Old Jewish Street.” The street was a thread that wove its way through Lviv’s Jewish life for hundreds of years, until that community was destroyed in the Holocaust. The literal translation of “Old” in the name can be interpreted one of two ways, either as nostalgia or recognition that the Jewish presence is a thing of the past in the area. And Jews were not the only people who once called this street their own and then vanished. The lower end of Staroievreiska (below Halytska street) was once intimately connected with Lviv’s Polish community. Evidence of the Polish presence still abounds at the beginning of Staroievreiska. It is there that a three-story building adorned with busts of famous Polish kings and leaders can be discovered on the side facing Teatralna street. A few steps further up the street stands 3 Staroievreiska, displaying a bas-relief medallion of Poland’s most famous scientific figure Nicolas Copernicus. During the 18th century the buildings from 1 Staroievreiska to 24 Staroievreiska were under the ownership of the Roman Catholic Church, the institution most representative of the Polish state. This presence was, like almost everything else in Lviv’s history, fleeting.

A typical tenement house on Staroievrska street in Lviv

A typical tenement house on Staroievrska street in Lviv (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

The Past Is About The Present – Degrees of Indifference
By the end of the 19th century a newly liberated group of entrepreneurs and businessmen had taken possession of these buildings. Surnames such as Laufer, Reischer, Weinbaum,  Mehrer and Krebs were typical among these new owners. The street was a thread that connected the old and new of Lviv’s Jewish community, the upwardly mobile enterprising individuals with the traditionally religious. There were areas of commerce, places to call home and sacred houses of worship.  The three, four and five story tenement houses that still stand today along the street, once held hundreds of the 80,000 Jewish households to be found in the city prior to the Second World War. The houses would remain, but the inhabitants vanished, into the ghetto, into the camps and into mass graves. The tenements were mere scaffolding that had momentarily held their lives.

The walls that bore witness to this massive human tragedy were solid, silent and indifferent. Today the housing and walls are much the same, though it is doubtful that their current inhabitants have the time or inclination to take notice. There is a great truth to be discovered in this indifference. For the living the past is rarely about the past, it is almost always about the present, about what or what does not remain. Little more than a beautiful and evocative name recalls Jews on this street, there is little else to remember them by. This is certainly the case with the missing memory of Jewish Staroievriska’s architectural and human history. The Nazis did not just aim to destroy the Jewish people. They aimed to destroy anything that might be part of their legacy, to erase them from memory, and render them invisible to history.

The Great Synagogue site in Lviv as it looks today

The Great Synagogue site in Lviv as it looks today (Credit: Дмитрий Ванькевич)

When The Magic Of Memory Is Gone – Who Will Remember Them?
Evidence of this erasure can be found further up the street. The part of Staroievriska bounded by Serbska and Arsenala streets is home to places and spaces that deserve imaginative contemplation. This is only possible with knowledge of what has been lost. The interpretation of emptiness begins at the overgrown lot at Staroievreiska 41. For a century and a half this was the site of a Jewish House of Prayer, known as the Beth Midrash, where intense study of the Talmud took place. Through arched windows light flowed into the interior of the modest Baroque-era building, illuminating a contemplative environment where great minds delved into the inner spirits that inform the soul. The trees, weeds and bushes that mark the space today are the opposite of mystical. They are an affront to wisdom and memory, an unkempt marker of destruction. This natural residue is a reminder that hatred leads to obliteration. It is also a reminder that memory and knowledge can lead to re-creation, if for only a moment.

At 54 Staroievreiska the stardust sprinkled by the street’s name finally disintegrates. The magic is all but gone and only a name remains. This is where the Great City Synagogue was located until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. This was the nerve center for the city’s Jewish religious life in the 19th and 20th century. Today nothing remains of the building. Sometimes the site is covered in tables and chairs for dinnertime revelers, other times it acts as a de facto car park. The open space can be seen as a powerful metaphor of what has been lost, both physically on the site and in human terms along Staroievreiska, namely a vibrant Jewish community. It seems appropriate that the site of the Great City Synagogue comes at the end of the street. This is tragically symbolic for the end of a magnificent culture that influenced life in Lviv for so many centuries. The site, much like the street, demands an interpretation of emptiness and a translation of sorrow, sadly this is lacking. Perhaps that is for the best, some tragedies defy comprehension. Life goes on, people still live and die on Staroievreiska, who will remember them.