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Stanislaw Lem: a Jew under the Nuremberg law

On the 12th of September the great science fiction author of “Solaris” would have turned 94

“Solaris”, “The Cyberiad”, “Man From Mars,” “Summa Technologiae” and hundreds of other books by the renowned writer and philosophy Stanislaw Lem have been enthralling people for over half a century. His works “speak” 41 languages, and sell by the millions. The Polish writer makes us contemplate problems of artificial intelligence and human capabilities, computer and human ethics, and the boundaries of our reason and conscience.

“I was a monster”

The famous science fiction writer was born in 1921 in the magical city of Lemberg, now Lviv, into an assimilated family of Polish Jews. His father Samuil Lem was a laryngologist, and a former frontline doctor. He adored his son and spoiled him, but the boy also delighted his parents. Stanislaw learnt to write at the age of four. As he admitted himself, he didn’t have anything sensational to say at this age, apart from writing to his father from Skola, where he went with his mother, that he had swum in a real country toilet. The young trickster didn’t mention the fact that the keys to the house had fallen into the toilet. Later Lem recalled: “I was a monster”. The young Stanislaw also read enthusiastically, especially banned literature. In general, there were few bans in this child’s life, and he tried to break the ones that did exist. His father hid professional literature in a large glass cupboard. And the young Lem secretly enjoyed looking at medical atlases, and he had made a thorough study of human anatomy before he even went to school.

The boy also tried his parents’ patience when it came to food. The young Lem only agreed to eat if his father opened and closed an umbrella. He also sometimes ate under the table.

The young Lem adored sweets, however. It’s not surprising that of his most vivid memory of Lviv was Zalevsky’s confectioner’s on Akademicheskaya Street. Sugared St. Nicholases with reins, a herd of pink pigs with chocolate eyes, all kinds of fruit, mushrooms and other delicacies of sugar powder and nuts made a permanent impression on the future writer.

The adventures of a child prodigy

In 1939, Stanislaw graduated from the Karol Szajnocha high school in Lviv. He tried to enroll at the Polytechnical University, but he was not accepted because of his ancestry, and he followed in his father’s footsteps – he went to study at the Lviv medical institute. Lem recalled that when IQ tests were given at the university, his was estimated at 180 – genius level. But his studies were interrupted by WWII. His family only managed to survive because his father secured fake documents on their “correct” ancestry – under the Nuremburg law even baptized Jews were subject to extermination.

During the German occupation, Lem learned the profession of car mechanic and became a member of the Resistance. He also discovered from experience that “life and death depend on tiny, trifling circumstances”. But nevertheless, realizing all the risks, Stanislaw often faced danger. For example, as an employee of a German firm, he stole ammunition from the “stores of trophies of the German air force.” And despite all the rules of secrecy, he transported the stolen goods by tram. All of Lem’s relatives apart from his parents died in the autumn of 1942 in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

After the end of the war, Lem’s family left Soviet Lviv, abandoning all their property, and moved to Krakow. Stanislaw could earn a decent living by working as a car mechanic, but under his father’s influence he began to study medicine at Jagiellonian University. But he never received a degree. To avoid a career as a military medic, he refused to sit the graduation exams.

For a while Lem worked as a junior assistant at a theater of anatomy at the university, and also at the “Scientific Knowledge Circle”, which gathered foreign scientific literature that could be found in Poland.

A busy husband

In that period Stanislaw began to write stories. His novel “The Astronauts”, which was published in 1951, was immediately appreciated by readers, and in 1953 his first story from the cycle “Star Diaries” was published. In the same year, Lem married the radiologist Barbara Lesniak, whom he had courted persistently for several years. His wife lived with her sister at the other end of Krakow, and the writer went to visit her by tram. The poverty was extreme. But however bad things were, Lem realized that they could be even worse. And he didn’t complain.
Gradually Lem became a professional writer. His work capacity was extremely high. Researchers of his work calculated that every three days he wrote an essay or work of journalism. Lem knew six languages: Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, German, English and French, and read a huge amount of scientific literature.

His family recalled that at four in the morning Stanislaw Lem started working, then he went shopping and came home. In his study, the sweet-lover Lem kept enormous supplies of marzipan and chocolate. He went to be around eight or nine p.m. His job as a car mechanic left its mark – Lem liked cars very much, and could discuss design features of different models endlessly with his mechanic neighbor. Additionally, the popular writer regularly changed his brand of car.

In his work, the writer studied the most diverse issues of human ethics and scientific progress. But Lem practically ignored topics of Jewishness or Judaism – perhaps this was the influence of assimilation, perhaps he did it out of caution, or perhaps he simply looked at humanity with all of its merits and shortcomings from a more global perspective.

A missionary in a brothel

About 25 years before the end of his life, Lem stopped reading science fiction – because he found it uninformative. Lem especially disliked American authors. He expressed his opinion in an open letter, for which he was excluded from the honorary members of the American organization of science fiction writers, SFWA (the founder of the “Nebula” prize). But he described the situation quite caustically: “Once I quite openly wrote to one Australian who was trying to comfort me that I simply ‘had to retreat’, after spending several years fulfilling the role of a missionary in a brothel “trying to put fallen women on the true path.” Incidentally, he did not classify a number of his books as science fiction. He believed that these works were closer to Voltaire than anything else – in some way it resembles a reincarnation of the Renaissance era.

But then Lem stopped writing novels altogether – he no longer felt like it. By that time he had published over 40 volumes of prose, and just administering all of these works, especially on an international scale, took a great deal of effort. And Lem maliciously added that by refusing to write another book, he was simply looking after his readers.

Stanislaw Lem passed away on the 27th of March 2006 in Krakow at the age of 84.



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