Stanisław Lem: Did the Holocaust Shape His Sci-Fi World?
Do the sci-fi visions of the future in Stanisław Lem’s books hide their author’s traumatic past as a Holocaust survivor? And why has this fact eluded readers and researchers for more than half a century?
A classic of the sci-fi genre, Stanisław Lem is one of the most famous Polish writers of the 20th century. His books, like The Cyberiad or The Star Diaries, were translated into numerous languages and sold in millions of copies, others like Solaris were adapted into films. While many of his bold futuristic visions eventually became true, his insights concerning the dark side of technology have only recently become relevant. Now, a new book about the author of Solaris sheds surprising light on his writing and his past – and in doing so challenges ways in which Lem has been read for the last half a century.
In Zagłada i Gwiazdy (editor’s translation: Holocaust and Stars 2016) Lem scholar Agnieszka Gajewska argues that beneath Lem’s splendid, bold and often grotesque visions of the future, the writer buried traces of his own traumatic past – a series of terrifying experiences, which included having escaped death in a pogrom and having lost most of his relatives in the Holocaust. These wartime experiences, just as his Jewish background, remained something the writer didn’t want to talk about for almost his entire life. As it turns out, he just might have preferred to scatter their traces throughout his work. Encrypted and masked, they appear unexpectedly, as Gajewska notes, ‘in narrative gaps, apparently functionless anecdotes, unexpected turns of events and grotesque visions’, all of which might also explain why they have remained invisible for readers and critics for so long.
Lem was born in Lviv (Polish: Lwów, German: Lemberg) in 1921, only three years after the city, the former capital of Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became part of the re-born Poland. His parents Samuel Lehm who was a respected doctor, and his mother Sabina (née Wollner) were both assimilated Polish Jews.
According to his memoirs Highcastle, Lem had a happy almost idyllic childhood, surrounded by loving parents and a whole entourage of cousins, aunts and uncles, who, however, and this is symptomatic, appear on the pages of the book anonymously.
When speaking about his childhood Lem would consistently claim that he had learned about his Jewish origin only as a result of the Nuremberg laws. Gajewska argues the contrary: Lem’s parents married in a synagogue and took an active part in the life of the Jewish community in Lviv by, among other things, donating to the religious community. Their son attended a Jewish religion class (receiving the highest notes), which can be seen as evidence that Lems didn’t indeed sever ties with their Jewish origins.
When the Nazis entered Lviv in 1941, Stanisław Lem was 20 years old. Gajewska’s pioneering reconstruction of his bio from these dark years fills out a couple of blank areas and establishes a couple of facts which hitherto were shrouded in mystery. One of them is that Lem survived the so-called prison pogrom of 30th June 1941 during which he was first forced to clear away dead bodies at the Brygidki prison and then almost executed in a massacre in the streets of Lviv. He survived only because the execution suddenly stopped because of a visit from a German film crew (a scene he would later encrypt in his sci-fi novel His Master’s Voice). Lem would most probably spend next months in the Lviv ghetto, from which he escaped using a fake Polish ID and working at a German company Rohstofferfassaung. His parents spent the entire Nazi occupation in different hiding places around Lviv.
When the war ended, and it became clear that Lviv would not be within the new Polish borders and the family moved to Kraków. By then almost all the members of his extended family – the anonymous uncles and aunts from Highcastle – had died in the Holocaust, murdered in Lviv and Bełżec. The last of Lem’s relatives were killed after the war in the Kielce pogrom.
Lem avoided talking about this wartime experience for almost his entire life, and if he did, he mastered the art of unequivocal, masking his real. And yet, according to Gajewska, these terrifying events would return both in Lem’s science fiction writings as well as his realist fiction, which began his career as a writer.
This wartime reality appears quite directly in Lem’s first novel. The Hospital of Transfiguration is a realist novel set during a war in an unidentified mental institution where doctors prepare for the Nazis' imminent appearance. Lem’s protagonist, Polish doctor Stefan Trzyniecki, is the same age as Lem at the time of writing the novel. One of the recurring themes is that whenever he doesn’t shave, he starts to look Jewish.
Another seemingly unimportant element brought to light by Gajewska in her analysis, is a distinctive architectural detail – a ‘Turkish tower’ rising above the hospital building whose function within the building infrastructure remains unclear. Gajewska identifies the tower’s architecture with Lviv’s Lazarus Hospital. Built in the Neo-Moorish style at the end of the 19th century and located not far from Lem’s house, it was a characteristic element of the city’s landscape.
Gajewska argues that in this encrypted way, Lem’s novel becomes not only a depiction of the wartime tragedy of the patients of a mental institution but also a tale of the Jewish inhabitants of Lviv. At the same time, as Gajewska points out, this was also part of the complicated game with the communist-imposed censorship in postwar Poland.
By the same token, a story of the liquidation of a mental facility becomes not only a parabole or philosophical treatise but a way to tell the story of the Jewish inhabitants of the city seised by the Soviet Union, people about whom one cannot write and about whose wartime suffering nobody wants to listen.
Wartime and Holocaust themes also appear in Lem’s two other novels that together with The Hospital formed a trilogy entitled Czas Nieutracony (editor’s translation: Time Not Lost). In one of them, Lem included a quasi-documentary chapter entitled Aktion Reinhardt, which described in detail the camp in Bełżec, where many of his relatives had most likely been killed. She concludes that the trilogy can be seen as a disguised tale of life on the so-called Aryan side: hiding and escaping from the ghetto.
Seen in this light, it might come as a surprise that in Highcastle, devoted to Lem’s Lviv childhood, all the Jewish aspects of his childhood are strangely omitted, as is any presence of Jews in the city. While the reasons for this inner censorship were obviously complicated and included the existence of real censorship in Poland (the name Lviv doesn’t actually appear in the book), Gajewska argues that this was part of the conscious strategy on the part of Lem, not to discuss his Jewish background.
Displacement & survivor’s syndrome in space
Similarly, Gajewska finds traces of Lem’s Lviv wartime memories in Lem’s better-known sci-fi oeuvre. Not easy to find, as she argues, they are buried ‘as allusions, associations, and comparisons, additionally masked by being set within cosmic journeys and alternative timelines.’ As such, they remained invisible for readers… One could argue that in doing so, Lem had managed to smuggle the Holocaust, his memories of it, into a space where he had left it for us to find it light years later. Only now is it a survivor’s testimony.
Gajewska explores these traces of Lem’s wartime experiences through categories of witness and survivor, themes familiar in Holocaust studies. The motifs related with Lem’s wartime experiences are not reduced to scenes of wartime violence but encompass such aspects as wartime displacement which Gajewska finds echoes of in Lem’s narratives and characters, like protagonists who at times seem like refugees travelling through distant galaxies. ‘One gets a feeling like they don’t have a place to go back to,’ argues Gajewska.
In one of his early sci-fi novels Return from the Stars, the protagonist Hal Bregg returns to Earth after a mission in space to find the planet he left totally unrecognisable (due to Einstein’s dilation paradox he returns to Earth over 100 years later). Moreover, Hal is haunted by memories of the death of his astronaut colleagues. A psychiatrist, who as Gajewska notes can be seen as Lem’s alter ego, suggests that he should keep these memories to himself. Telling others about it would only aggravate his isolation. In this, Bregg may seem like a typical survivor a catastrophe which has made him seemingly unfit to live in the normal world...
He then accidentally becomes a witness to robots being selected to be burned and crashed, a scene which, according to Gajewska, brings to mind the history of the 20th century. The scenes of this ‘mechanic agony’ result in a nervous breakdown. In this way, Hal Bregg can be seen as a disguised figure of a Holocaust survivor who returns to a world in which he doesn’t fit, and has to somehow deal with it.
Robotic Holocaust & a robot dybbuk
Hidden allusions to the Holocaust also abound in Lem’s most famous sci-fi series, Tales of Pirx, the Pilot. Gajewska shows how one of the stories - in which a group of people on one spaceship become unwilling witnesses to the death of the crew of another spaceship, and return to dancing in their ship’s ballroom immediately after the incident - can be seen as a transposition of a wartime motif of the indifference of witnesses of the Holocaust to the suffering in front of their eyes. Gajewska calls this Lem story ‘a cosmic version of Campo di Fiori’, a reference to a poem by Czesław Miłosz, the most famous realisation of this motif in Polish literature.
In another of Lem’s classics The Star Diaries (The Eleventh Voyage), we find Ijon Tichy arrive on a planet ruled by revolting robots which, it seems, learned to be violent from people and are now engaging in terrifying behaviour. The story climaxes in a macabre scene reminiscent of a selection in extermination camps performed on human children by robots wielding axes.
As Gajewska argues, the fragment stylised in Baroque-like language uses the ironic distance to undermine the possible associations with the historical events of the Holocaust. As such, this horrifying and grotesque depiction of the Holocaust is unparalleled in Polish literature. The story continues to reveal the true reason behind the robots’ erratic behaviour (the robots are in fact people dressed as robots) and ends with a bitterly ironic conclusion: ‘It's comforting to know when you think about it, that only man can be a bastard.’
In another story from the Tales of Pirx the Pilot series (Terminus), we meet a robot who is the sole surviving witness of a horrifying spaceship catastrophe which resulted in the slow death of all the members of the crew. The electronic circuits of the traumatised robot preserve the last moments of the crew members who, separated from each other, communicated with Morse code. This audio record becomes a kind of message in a bottle from the dead. But, as Gajewska concludes, the dying crew lives on inside the robot much like a dybbuk. For Pirx, his moral dilemma is whether he should turn off (or rather ‘terminate’) the robot, effectively erasing the terrible memories and with them the traces of the existence of those people.
His Master’s Voice: Lem speaking
Perhaps the most direct case of encrypting personal experiences in Lem’s sci-fi work comes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice. In it, Hogarth the protagonist (and likely Lem’s alter ego) relates a wartime story of his friend Professor Rappaport. The story seems unconnected to the main plot and has no function in this book about making contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation.
The story told by Rappaport to Hogarth includes terrifying scenes of a street execution taking place in the yard of the prison, in his hometown, in 1942. Rapaport spent a couple of hours lined up against the wall waiting his turn before the unexpected arrival of a film crew saved his life. During this time he witnesses a grotesque scene where a Jewish man tries to persuade Germans that he too is German, only he is saying this in Yiddish, a scene which to Rappaport, in his current state of mind, appears to be infinitely funny. Then awaiting his turn in front of the firing squad, he decides to turn his thoughts to reincarnation.
Only many years later, in a private letter to his American translator Michael Kandel from 1972, did Lem for the first time admit that Rappaport’s story told by Hogarth is in fact his own.
Lem & the end of man
Gajewska also shows how Lem’s perception of the human body is marked by the Holocaust: in Astronauts, the body is called a ‘malleable substance’, and in Fables, for Robots it is a ‘sticky content on a calcium scaffolding.’ Motifs of people growing body parts, often read today in the context of biotechnology and transhumanism, can also be seen as traces of Lem’s traumatic memory of the Holocaust, which introduced the idea of the total annihilation of the human body.
In a 1962 review of Albert Camus’s Pest, quoted in Gajewska’s book, Lem makes a point that the parabolic work of the French author fails to make an impression on people who were witnesses to even more cruel events, and it’s hard to assume that he wasn’t talking about himself.
As Gajewska reconstructs Lem’s train of thought, such people are not able to identify with the funeral processions gathered over ditches full of human flesh described in Pest simply because in Camus' world people attending funerals have time to despair and grieve. At the same time, Lem weighs in critically on his own approach which he recognises as ‘barbaric’. He understands that artistic work is not capable of endlessly repeating the phrase ‘man-made soap from humans.’ At the same time, he emphasises, for an artist, the importance of experiencing within oneself what he calls a sense of ‘complete doubt in man,’ an experience which has penetrated our present reality and electrified the air not only in the ‘Bloodlands’ – an experience which according to Lem, Camus was missing. As Lem thought:
There is a surplus of knowledge about man which imposes silence on the artist, at least within the frame of hitherto existing sets of poetics and old conventions.
In this context, Gajewska concludes, Lem’s experiments with literary genres and poetics, his transformations of well-known narrative schemes, or his framing of philosophical deliberations as grotesque forms, enable him to get out of this deadlock of silence in the face of the crisis of ethics and the end of man.
This seems like an apt and important conclusion. It not only allows one to better understand the importance of Lem’s work today, but it also positions Polish literature against a wider background of the post-war literature written elsewhere.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 19 September 2017