STORY: A Serial Killer in Socialism

A series of murders in socialist Poland led to the conviction of a man at the end of a show trial

Between November 1964 and March 1970in the Upper Silesian coalfield region of socialist Poland, a serial killer committed 21 assaults against women who returned alone from work in the evening or late at night, conducted with the same modus operandi; the victims were surprised from behind, stunned with a violent blow to the head and then beaten repeatedly until they died; the murderer finally stripped them of something, to take away a fetish or a trophy, such as underwear; 14 of them died, but seven survived. The public was terrified of what was renamed “the Silesian Vampire” and spontaneously organized groups of volunteers who accompanied the single women in the evening. The police couldn’t admit that a serial killer being born into the perfect socialist society was simply unacceptable to the authorities.

A scapegoat?

When, in October 1966, she was killed Jolanta Gierek, 18 years oldthe investigations intensified because it was not just any girl, but the nephew of politician Edward Gierek, one of the party leaders of Katowice; in 1968 the sum of one million zlotys was fixed in exchange for information on his killer. None of the information received, however, seemed really relevant, while the DNA at the time was still useless for investigations. The more the searches continued and the murders continued, the more the police felt under attack by the population, so the objective – even more than finding the serial killer – became that of give citizens a guilty person, even if it were a scapegoatto be shown to calm tempers and maintain shaky order.

A famous American criminologist was involved, considered the father of the technique of profiling, James Brussels, who believed that the killer could be a serious and respectable worker – practically the model socialist citizen – but suffering from schizophrenia. But the very idea that there could be a serial killer in socialist countries was harshly rejected by the socialist authorities, who believed that anomalies of that kind, spoiled products of society, symptoms of something profoundly wrong, were possible only in the capitalist context.

So the investigations looked in other directions and identified the ideal candidate in a man accused by his wife of brutal sexual practices, as well as a neighbor of one of the victims: Zdzisław Marchwicki. A sham probative motion was enacted. The character lent itself well: he had grown up in a dysfunctional family, he was violent with his wife, he was a “strange guy”; already at the time, however, some experts and investigators raised doubts, why there were no real leads on himthe witnesses who said they recognized him had been previously influenced and the accused had in fact been deprived of the effective possibility of defending himself. The only other suspect, Piotr Olszowy, had committed suicide and the authorities had to be able to demonstrate that they could do their job. As many as 500 people went to see the trial hearings, in which Marchwicki’s brothers, alleged accomplices, were also accused, and the fact that one of them was homosexual – a real infamy at the time – was used to aggravate their position. In the end, the defendant confessed.

Today many believe that he was a scapegoat, a victim of sentenced to death by which time he was reduced to a ghost of himself and almost relieved that it was all over. The murders had ended two years before his arrest.

Fear in the GDR

Unfortunately it is not the only case of investigations into a serial killer which, in the same period and also for ideological reasons, were conducted in an inaccurate way, with the political aims of controlling the population and demonstrating the power of the authorities. Also in East Germany between 1969 and 1971For example, there were murders that disrupted routine and represented a significant problem for the police and government, who made an effort at all costs to contain the news. In the quiet Brandenburg town of EberswaldeAbout an hour from Berlin, three little boys were found in the woods, dead with their throats cut. The defendant was a “homosexual pedophile”: in the end the police sights focused on Hans Erwin Hagedorna 19-year-old young cook, who was accused of sexually assaulting 17 children. After a rather superficial process, which did not fail to raise doubts, the boy came sentenced to deathas expected in the GDR at the time.

Occurrences of this type – not so much crimes as attempts to solve them hastily, even at the cost of convicting an innocent person – weren’t all that rare. Because when propaganda governs crime news it becomes a political issue and the truth must not come out.


The Vampire of Socialism. The Mystery of the Serial Killer of the East (2022), by Magdalena Gwódźdź-Pallokat and by Nils Werner

Hajnal Király, Zsolt Győri (Editors) Postsocialist Mobilities: Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Sławomir Krempa, Cała prawda or wampirze. Wywiad z Przemysławem Semczukiem03.26.2021

Malwina Uzarowska, Wampir z Zagłębia. Historia zbrodni 06.24.2019

Image: A Nightmare on Antwerp Central Stationby Koen Jacobs – Creative Commons License

STORY: A Serial Killer in Socialism – East Journal