Lem, the Stars, and the Holocaust

Agnieszka Gajewska, Zagłada i gwiazdy. Przeszłość w prozie Stanisława Lema [The Holocaust and the stars. The past in Stanisław Lem’s fiction], Adam Mickiewicz University Press, Poznań 2016.

There was a story that when journalists talking to Stanisław Lem asked him about his wartime past in Lviv, he would ostentatiously take the hearing aid out of his ear. Interestingly, the hearing aid was directly connected with that ghastly past – Lem’s hearing problems resulted from an explosion of an artillery shell in 1944. Although he was quite generous in sharing the facts from his biography—after all, he gave two book-length interviews and wrote an autobiographical book, and his fans could also read volumes of his correspondence and memoirs of his son, Tomasz Lem—one part of his life really remained undiscovered. He spoke very sparingly about his Jewish origin and about the war years, which he spent with his family in Lviv.

As befitted a great writer, the momentous and painful events of his life were smuggled into his books in a perverse and disguised way. Agnieszka Gajewska, author of the book The Holocaust and the Stars, did a job which is both obvious—as it retrospectively seems— and remarkable: she explored the work of the Stanisław Lem in a way showing that echoes of the Holocaust of the Lviv Jews were always present in his fiction and that discovering them was only a matter of a proper perspective. As a result, at one stroke she filled the gap in Lem’s biography, wrote a piece of Jewish history in the Eastern Borderlands of the interwar Poland, and proved that it was possible to write a fascinating academic book.

Gajewska painstakingly combed the archives to get to the facts which in various biographical sources on Lem exist in a distorted form. Even though the main subject of the book is the presence of Holocaust in Lem’s fiction, Gajewska also explores the interwar and wartime fate of the writer’s family, going back to the 19th century, to the beginnings of the assimilation of Galician Jews, and ending her quest in the 1970s, when Lem was under surveillance of communist security forces. She precisely recreated the writer’s family tree, carefully tracing his childhood spent in pre-war Lviv and previously shrouded in mystery. Lem himself claimed that he had learned about his Jewish origin only as a result of the Nuremberg laws. He wrote in one of his letters: “I didn’t know anything about Judaism or, unfortunately, Jewish culture. Actually, it was Nazi legislation which made me aware that Jewish blood was running in my veins.”

But the facts established by Gajewska look a bit different. The writer’s parents, Samuel Lem and Sabina Lem, née Wolner, although they regarded themselves as Poles of Jewish origin, were married in a synagogue and took an active part in the life of the Jewish community in Lviv. Lem himself attended classes on the Jewish religion and received the top mark in his school certificate. At the same time, if we believe him, he felt Polish. The war undermined this feeling. As a member of a group artificially separated by the occupant, he was sentenced to death.

In the whole Galicia district only 20,000– 26,000 Jews survived, among them Lem’s parents and himself. All his extended family and friends died in the Belzec camp or in Lviv. The writer himself witnessed horrible scenes in Lviv, including the massacre which took place after the Germans entered the city on July 2, 1941. Afterwards, waiting for the “Aryan documents,” he had to wear a white band with a six-pointed star on his shoulder; in the autumn of 1941 he got his forged papers. At the turn of 1945 he returned to medical school, and by the end of the academic year in June 1945, when it was already known that Lviv would not stay within Polish borders, Lem’s family decided to move to Kraków. Expatriation took place in July 1945.

These facts were established by Gajewska on the basis of archival materials. What did Lem himself say about it? Almost nothing, and if he did speak, it was in a very general way. For example, he recalled much later that during the occupation he had not entertained much hope for survival, for he had known the death statistics, and he was chronically incapable of self-deception. This is why he always carried a gun and some poison on him. Sometimes he explained that returning to the memories of the Holocaust cost him sleepless nights, and sometimes he answered evasively. He remained even more resoundingly silent on the matter of his Jewish origin. Why? Holocaust survivors often chose the strategy of silence, but it can be assumed that one of the reasons for Lem’s decision was the fact that this question had never been asked in Poland in a neutral context, it always had strong political overtones.

And he never wrote directly about the Lviv hell. According to Władysław Bartoszewski, this was the reason he lost his chance for the Nobel Prize – Bartoszewski believed that the story of assimilated Jews in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland demanded to be written, and if only Lem told a conventional story about his experiences, he would have pocketed the most prestigious literary prize. But he never did it in a direct way. Initially, it was partly because of censorship – Lem made his debut in the Stalinist period when the subject of the recent war was regarded as too pessimistic for the times of optimism and reconstruction, and his later reasons were known only to himself. But according to Gajewska, Lviv, the occupation, and the experience of the Holocaust were to be constantly present in his works in a disguised way.

Contrary to what may seem, sci-fi may be a good vehicle for expressing the experience of the Holocaust and in a sense it even derived from it. To support this claim, Gajewska quotes Lem’s conversation with the writer Raymond Federman. When Federman asks Lem if his work as a science-fiction author is compatible with the post-Holocaust era, he answers: “I would like to go even further and say that the flourishing of science-fiction after World War II must have something to do with the post-Holocaust era in which we live… and in which we attempt to survive.” Gajewska reminds the reader that Cold War science-fiction reflected the anxieties of survivors and described the scale of destruction by invoking themes from the catastrophic novel, to which it added the knowledge about mechanized mass death and the war rhetoric associated with atomic weapons existing on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Gajewska also points to the unobvious but striking similarity between the experience of the Holocaust and the sci-fi – this similarity consists in finding yourself in an “out-of-this-world” situation. When asked how the so-called Aryan side was looked upon from the ghetto’s perspective, the Jewish historian and participant of the Warsaw ghetto rising Israel Gutman said: “A quite different world: people in clean, normal clothing were laughing, families walked together, people carried flowers… It was as if I was seeing something happening on the moon.” Others remembered arriving to Birkenau as landing on a different planet and said about the sun shining on Auschwitz that it was black, like in a separate solar system. To prove that the survivors’ sense of “another planet” was widespread and profound, Gajewska quotes one more testimony of a former victim “[…] It seems to me that Hitler axed off a part of the world and created there zones of destruction, areas of torture and slaughter. You know, it was quite as if the planet had been split into a normal part – let’s say normal, but our life is not really normal – and this other planet, and as if we were chased from this planet to the other and ceased to have anything to do with the inhabitants of the normal one.”

If you look at it from a proper perspective, the traumatic situation of isolation and displacement resembles space travel. The experiences of alienation and loneliness were also used by Lem, who placed them in unobvious contexts in his books. For example, in his Return from the Stars the protagonist coming back from his journey suspended in a time loop is unable to find a shared experience with the Earthlings. Other books are rife with people being lost in a space possessing the qualities of a labyrinth, with a sense of helplessness and anxiety. Gajewska goes even deeper and finds striking associations which are not visible at the first glance – e.g. in the blood-like ocean in Solaris or in ruins and cemeteries from other works, interpreted by her as echoes of the experiences of German and Soviet occupation filtered through the convention of a horror story.

Another method of portraying the experience of violence was Lem’s focus on physicality, analyzing the fragility of human life and describing objects made from human bodies. One example is his Hospital of the Transfiguration, in fact containing a realistic account of the war, where the human body is depicted as a “protein eruption” or “jelly.” In The Astronauts the body is called “malleable substance” and in Fables for Robots it is a “sticky content on calcium scaffolding.” As Gajewska notes, in his perception of human beings Lem becomes an heir of Darwin’s thought, mocking the faith in the teleological aspect of human life and its uniqueness, supporting the random nature of existence and revealing the absurdity of asking about the presence of evil in the world, which he perceives as an end result of environmental factors. Randomness of existence and the possibility of destruction contained in each version of the world are in fact permanent motifs in Lem’s works, and we may assume that they are closely associated with the trauma of the war experience.

The experience of the Holocaust is also the nightmare of medical experiments. Nazi propaganda stretched between two poles: on the one hand segregation, producing a population of people whose death was not worth mourning – this was achieved, among other things, through Nazi propaganda art, modelled on dental anatomy exhibits and collections of curiosities, outlandish treatises on savages, freaks, etc., art turning the mentally ill into beasts; on the other hand there was the New Man, revolutionizing the current perception of the body. Idealization of this man, impossible to achieve, was to lead to the emergence of a new soul, resistant to compassion and empathy, determined to fight in the name of progress and better adaptation of the so-called Aryan race, totally disregarding the cruelty of methods. This experience also found its expression in Lem’s fiction: physical deformities, strange tics, scars – all these are typical for his characters. Objectification of the body could also be quoted in this context – in his realist novels the writer pointed to treating the Jews as nonhuman and in science fiction he described scientists reifying Aliens.

It turns out that there are very many traces of the Holocaust in Lem’s fiction, so many that even diligent readers of his works may be surprised that they missed them. In Eden it is the position of a bystander/witness, in The Invincible it is the poignant description of dead bodies, in the cycle about Pirx it is the theme present in Miłosz’s poem “Campo di fiori” of dancing passengers of Transgalaktika and the parallel agony of the Albatross crew or explorations amid lunar dust recalling a journey through ruins of a destroyed city.

But Gajewska’s book is not limited to persistent tracking of these traces, it is also a fascinating story about Lviv and the assimilated Jews in the Borderlands, a story which busts the existing myths. After 1899, many memoirs have been published about Lviv, the city which Polish people had to leave in 1945–1946 if they did not want to become Soviet citizens. Gajewska takes issue with mythical notions about Lviv’s past. On the one hand, it is the nostalgic and sentimental tone situating the city in the myth of Galicia, presenting Lviv as a heaven and a predominantly Polish city; on the other hand, it is the myth of Austria Felix – a multicultural paradise, were representatives of various nations lived happily under the Habsburg rule and then in the Second Polish Republic. Both of them are false, and the Lem family fitted into none of them as not Polish enough for the first one and too Polish for the other. Gajewska only starts to tell this story, reminding us how much it demands our attention – if only by pointing at the fact that Jews constituted one third of the population of pre-war Lviv, and in the 1920s and 1930s it was one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe. Lem never came back to his native city, for its residents had been murdered and those who had survived left it. “Stones are not enough,” he wrote, “people are the most important after all, and those people are no longer in Lviv.”

But we have Lviv preserved in Lem’s memories, filtered through his writer’s imagination, inserted in his books in surprising ways and decrypted in the very interesting publication by Gajewska, worth recommending not only to the masses of Lem’s readers, but also to people interested in the subject of the Borderlands, the Jewish fate, and Polish history.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of a novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for Gdynia Literary Prize. In 2018, the novel will be published in Argentine. She received a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Winner of the Adam Włodek Prize. Currently working on her second novel Maszkaron.

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