Notebook: Stanisław Lem and the Holocaust

Barbara Morgenstern, photograph of Stanisław Lem, 1976, Deutsche Fotothek

A new article of mine, “Close Encounters,” is published in the 17 January 2022 issue of The New Yorker. It’s about how the science fiction of the Polish writer Stanisław Lem was shaped by his experience as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. What follows here is a discussion of some of the sources I drew on for the article—a kind of journalistic “Inside the Episode” featurette—as well as pointers to other Lem resources online. It won’t make much sense until after you read the article—please start there! Or just go there, period. There’s no need to come back here at all, really, unless you like to read footnotes.

As ever, my first debt is to the books under review. Agnieszka Gajewska’s scholarly study of Lem, Holocaust and the Stars, is published by Routledge, in a translation by Katarzyna Gucio. Wojciech Orliński’s Lem: A Life Out of This World hasn’t been translated into English yet, and since I don’t speak Polish, I read it in an easygoing and lively Spanish translation by Bárbara Gill, issued by Ediciones Godot, a publishing house in Argentina. The Godot edition is a beautifully designed little paperback, with lots of photos and illustrations, well worth seeking out if you happen to read Spanish and can figure out a way to order it internationally. The Truth and Other Stories, a collection of Lem’s early tales, many never before Englished, is published by MIT Press, in an excellent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In synch with the centenary of Lem’s birth (about which Roisin Kiberd wrote for the New York Times last summer, in an article illustrated with a number of the psychedelic dust jackets that graced Lem’s novels when they came out in Poland), MIT Press has also reprinted in sharp-looking paperbacks Lem’s memoir, Highcastle, and a number of his best novels.

Andrzej Bertrandt, film poster for Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (USSR, 1972)

The Criterion Channel streams the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie of Solaris (1972), along with an interview with Lem about it, excerpted from a Polish television documentary. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, meanwhile, is streaming pretty much everywhere. Unsophisticatedly, I like both!

Gertrude Hermes, dust jacket for Stanisław Lem's "Solaris" (Faber, 1971)

While we’re on the topic of differing versions of Solaris, I should maybe explain that when I quote from the novel in my article, I’m using a new translation by Bill Johnston, who’s also responsible for MIT Press’s new translation of The Invincible. Johnston translated Solaris directly from the Polish original, unlike his predecessors Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, who based their translation on a French intermediary. Kilmartin and Cox’s version is mellifluous, and I very much enjoyed it when I first read the book, but Johnston’s is more faithful to what Lem actually wrote and is also excellent stylistically (though there are a couple of spots where it could have been benefited from a major publishing house’s copy editing team). Unfortunately, though the Lem estate supports Johnston’s translation, his English-language publishers have resisted updating the text of Solaris, and you can only read Johnston’s translation as a Kindle e-book (this is the only time I will be linking to Amazon in this post). You can’t go wrong with either version, honestly, though I ended up preferring Johnston’s, even though I’m a sentimentalist who usually stays attached to the pioneer translation of a classic.

For background about the city of Lviv, formerly Lwów, and about Poland’s history while under the control of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, I consulted Tony Judt’s Postwar, Patrice Dabrowski’s Poland: The First Thousand Years, Norman Davies’s God’s Playground, Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki’s A Concise History of Poland, and Adam Zamoyski’s Poland: A History. For the experience of postwar Poland’s Jewish citizens, in particular, I also drew on David Engel’s article “Poland since 1939,” in the online encyclopedia Yivo, and Dariusz Stola’s article “Jewish Emigration from Communist Poland: The Decline of Polish Jewry in the Aftermath of the Holocaust,” East European Jewish Affairs 47 (2017): 169-88. Marcin Wolk’s review of the Polish editions of Gajewska’s and Orliński’s books, “Stanisław Lem, Holocaust Survivor,” Science Fiction Studies 45 (2018): 332-40, provides details about Lem’s reticence to discuss his Jewish identity.

The one essay in which Lem did reference his Jewish identity explicitly was “Chance and Order,” which appeared in the 30 January 1984 issue of The New Yorker and was reprinted under the title “Reflections on My Life” in the collection Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1984). The Microworlds collection is also where I found Lem casting aspersions on science fiction as a genre. Lem’s letters to his American translator Michael Kandel were published as Stanisław Lem: Selected Letters to Michael Kandel, trans. Peter Swirski (Liverpool University Press, 2014). Swirski is the dean of Lem studies in English, and I owe my knowledge of the contents of several early Lem novels never translated into English, including Man from Mars and Astronauts, to his essay “The Unknown Lem,” which appeared in Lemography: Stanislaw Lem in the Eyes of the World (Liverpool University Press, 2014).

John-Paul Himka’s “The Lviv Pogrom of 1941: The Germans, Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Carnival Crowd,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 53 (2011): 209–43, is the definitive account of what happened during the Lwów pogrom of June 30 to July 2, 1941. (An intriguing byway: the disputes on Wikipedia over the facts of the pogrom are explored by Mykola Makhortykh in “War Memories and Online Encyclopedias,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society 9.2 (2017): 40–68.) Published memoirs by survivors of the pogrom include Janina Hescheles, My Lvov: Holocaust Memoir of a Twelve-Year-Old Girl (Amsterdam Publishers, 2020) and David Kahane, Lvov Ghetto Diary, transl. Jerzy Michalowicz (University of Massachusetts Press, 1990). Janina Hescheles’s memoir mentions a cousin of Lem’s, Henryk Hescheles, who was imprisoned for a time in one of the NKVD’s prisons in Lwów and then died during the Nazi-managed pogrom. Kahane’s memoir describes being given shelter in the private library of the metropolitan of Lwów’s cathedral, an episode that Gajewska hears an echo of in Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. I’m not going to link directly here to the Nazi-made film footage of the pogrom that I mention in my article, because the material is difficult and upsetting and I’d rather have you think twice before you view it, but it can be searched for at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website by the accession numbers 1991.260.1 and 2009.356.1 (the museum has two different versions of the film).

Communist Party inscription in a Czech copy of the Stanislaw Lem novel Among the Dead

The Fredric Jameson quote about Lem’s novel Eden comes from his Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction (Verso, 2007). Lem’s novel Among the Dead was never translated into English, and my knowledge of it comes from Gajewska’s and Orliński’s descriptions and quotations, as well as from consulting the Czech translation, which was published, along with the two other volumes in the trilogy, as Nepromarněný čas, transl. Jaroslav Simondes (Mladá fronta, 1959). Fun fact: in an inscription on the front free endpaper of my copy of this Czech version, a factory section of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia writes that the book is being presented to its first owner as a reward for “good work as a propagandist in the Year of Party Training, 1958–59,” which I am told was a kind of adult-ed class for Communists who wanted to go the extra mile.

Work card for Sever Kahane (7677034), US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Gajewska’s and Orliński’s books are my sources for most of the information in my article about Wiktor Kremin’s Lwów recycling company, which is usually referred to in the sources by the German word for a recycling company, Rohstofferfassung. I also found mention of the company in Witold Wojciech Medykowski’s Macht Arbeit Frei: German Economic Policy and Forced Labor of Jews in the General Government, 1939-1943 (Academic Studies Press, 2018). And there is some discussion of the Rohstofferfassung in a biographical chapter in Peter Swirski’s Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (Liverpool University Press, 2015). Intriguingly, I noticed, while poking around the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online collections, that there’s a record that someone named Sever Kahane was, like Lem, employed by Kremin’s Rohstofferfassung during the Nazi occuption of Lviv. I’m guessing that this Sever Kahane is the same person as Seweryn Kahane, who Gajewska reports lived with the Lems for a time during the German occupation of Lwów (he was later killed on 4 July 1946 during a pogrom in Kielce). Maybe the family arranged at the same time for both Kahane and Lem to be employed by Kremin?

Jerzy Czerniawski, film poster for Edward Żebrowski's "Hospital of the Transfiguration" (1978)

Polish literature buffs may be interested in knowing that in Lem’s novel Hospital of the Transfiguration, the mad poet in the asylum is based on the real-life Polish poet Stanisław Witkacy; cf. these articles by Wojciech Sztaba and Jerzy Jarzębski. Witkacy was a personal friend of Mieczysław Choynowski, the professor at Jagiellonian University who hired Lem to write synopses of new scientific literature published abroad.

Daniel Mróz, dust jacket for Stanisław Lem's "Cyberiad" (1972)

While working on this article, friends have asked which of Lem’s novels they should start with, so here’s a list of some of my favorites, in roughly descending order: Solaris, Return from the Stars, Eden, His Master’s Voice, Hospital of the Transfiguration (not sci-fi), The Investigation (a detective novel), The Invincible, Fiasco, and The Chain of Chance (a detective novel). And I liked the anthology Truth and Other Stories quite a bit, too, if stories are your way in.

Lem made clear his opinion of Nazis in two reviews of imaginary books. In A Perfect Vacuum: Perfect Reviews of Nonexistent Books (1978), Lem imagines a novel, Gruppenführer Louis XVI by Alfred Zellermann, about a Nazi officer who, after the fall of the Third Reich, absconds to Argentina with a trunk full of cash, trailing an entourage of opportunistic lackeys. In Argentina he decides to force his parasites to act as though he really is the French king Louis XVI, and the result is something like the HBO show Succession if scripted by Brecht. Lem responded to Hannah Arendt’s writings on Nazis in another review of an imaginary book, though this time “with complete seriousness and not ironically,” as he explained to his American translator. The essay/”review” was titled “Provocation,” and I read it in a French translation, Provocation; suivi de Réflexions sur ma vie, trans. Dominique Sila (Éditions du Seuil, 1989).

Ryszard Filipski and Jerzy Zelnik in Przekladaniec, directed by Andrzej Wajda, Fototeka Narodowa

The streaming site Mubi is showing half a dozen adaptations of Lem’s fiction in honor of his centenary, including an early Andrzej Wajda short, with costumes and sets so swinging that they make the Austin Powers movies look chaste, about a racecar driver whose reconstructive surgery draws on parts from so many different bodies that it isn’t clear whether he’s himself, his brother, or his sister-in-law. I recommend Ikarie XB 1, a Czech adaptation of an early Lem novel, which Kubrick borrowed from rather liberally when designing 2001. Orliński was the writer for a 2015 documentary, Stanisław Lem: Autor Solaris, directed by Borys Lankosz, which has appeared on Arté and Mubi though it doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere at the moment. There’s an excellent podcast about Lem produced by Poland’s Ministry of National Culture and Heritage, a link on the webpage for which leads to the Belarussian Lem scholar Wiktor Jaźniewicz’s monumental Lem-focused book collection.

Bayesian realism

But what happened? I found myself asking, a couple of days ago, after I finished Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Investigation. I think this is a natural if philistine question. The book presents itself as a detective novel, after all. The opening scene even takes place at Scotland Yard, in an office that seems like an archetype of the genre. Here’s how the hero, a novice detective named Gregory, describes the room:

Gregory noticed Queen Victoria eyeing them from a small portrait on the wall behind the desk. The Chief Inspector looked at each of the men in turn as if counting them or trying to memorize their faces. One of the side walls was covered by a huge map of southern England; on the wall opposite there was a dark shelf lined with books.

One of the pleasures of Lem’s novel is that instead of being set in a realist London, it seems to take place in a postwar Polish novelist’s idea of detective-novel London, into which elements of a 1950s Eastern European city keep inadvertently seeping (arcades, overgilded hotel lobbies, city-periphery rabbit-hutch apartment buildings).

The Platonic ideal of a detective novel, however, always ends with a dénouement, in which the culprit is nabbed, and an éclaircissement, in which the detective explains what gave the culprit’s diabolical plot away. The Investigation has neither. The only explanation offered of its central mystery fits the evidence so poorly that for it to work, one incident has to be omitted. And no one even tries to explain some of the most disturbing phenomena. It is left up to the reader, for example, to come up with a theory for why a corpse left in a mortuary in winter would spontaneously return to a living person’s body temperature.

The Investigation, in other words, is one of those detective novels that break the rules because they are to some extent about detective novels—and about the philosophical implications of detection, as a way of seeing the world—like The Crying of Lot 49 or Twin Peaks. (A side note: Like Albert in Twin Peaks, one of the minor characters in The Investigation is a forensic medical examiner with a rebarbative personality, whose name is Sorensen: “It suddenly occurred to Gregory that Sorensen had done well in choosing a profession in which he associated mainly with the dead.” I feel like at some point in Twin Peaks, more or less the same thing gets said about Albert.)

The “crime” at the heart of The Investigation is resurrection. Across London, dead bodies are going missing or being discovered in altered positions that suggest that they briefly came back to life. Scotland Yard’s chief inspector assigns the case to Gregory somewhat reluctantly. “I would prefer not to give this case to you . . . but I have no one else,” the chief says. Maybe he’s reluctant because Gregory is only a junior officer, a “beginner,” but maybe it’s because the chief doubts the case will be congenial to someone with Gregory’s mindset. “You might not like the solution,” the chief warns. Gregory’s mindset is resolutely empirical and focused on finding an individual human culprit, as befits a detective. As Gregory himself puts it, “I absolutely refuse to believe in miracles, and nothing is going to make me, even if I go crazy.” Behind any event in the world, Gregory expects to find a person, acting out an intention. Crimes, according to his way of thinking, are the expressive activity of criminals; society is the sum of the acted-out intentions of the people who comprise it.

As a habit of mind, always needing to find a culprit is a little like always seeing the world as God’s creation, and there are hints that the supernatural is what Gregory has come up against. When the chief agrees with Gregory, half-heartedly, that it would be unprofessional to chalk the events up to a miracle, he makes a religious allusion: “We all have to be doubting Thomases in this case . . . It’s one of the unfortunate requirements of our profession.” And when the chief tries to suggest to Gregory that at the end of the day there might not be any resurrectionists behind the resurrections, he makes his point by asking, “Who makes day and night?” The two men even discuss the possibility that they’re living through a recurrence of circumstances that last obtained “about two thousand years ago.” As Gregory reminds the chief inspector, “there was a series of alleged resurrections then also—you know, Lazarus, and . . . the other one.” Gregory worries that he’s being asked to catch “the creator of some new religion.”

An irruption of the divine would explain the novel’s mysteries neatly, but it’s hardly an option that a novel published in a totalitarian Communist nation was able to consider at much length (per the copyright page, Investigation came out in Poland in 1959). Within the novel, what deranges Gregory’s intentionalist view of the world isn’t faith but a statistical view of things taken by a colleague of his named Dr. Sciss. Sciss doesn’t see any need to explain why a particular corpse has crawled out of its coffin. He’s content if he’s able to calculate that there’s a numerical constant in “the product obtained by multiplying the time elapsed between any two incidents, and the distance separating any two consecutive disappearing-body sites from the center, when multiplied by the differential between the prevailing temperatures at both sites.” Like a researcher working in artificial intelligence today, Sciss doesn’t feel any compulsion to look inside the black box of his algorithm. It suffices to him if the algorithm is capable of making Bayesian (or Bayesian-like) predictions reasonably well. He forecasts that the next reanimation will occur in a circular strip in the London suburbs “no more than twenty-one miles wide.” If it occurs at all.

This is pretty broad, as predictions go. Even as Lem casts statistics as his novel’s uncanny other, he may be making a little fun of the science. Gregory is impressed by Sciss’s talk, however, and resolves to read up on statistics. Only to discover that as a way of understanding the world, it doesn’t satisfy him—much as it’s unlikely to satisfy anyone looking to read a detective novel. From the perspective of statistics, Sciss tries to argue, resurrections aren’t any more remarkable than the fact that in some London neighborhoods, people happen to be more resistant to cancer than they are in other neighborhoods. Coming back to life, considered mathematically, is more or less the same as not-dying-of-cancer transposed from above zero to below it; in the aggregate, a pattern of corpses moving around is a lot like a pattern of living people not dying of cancer shifted on the axis of aliveness. Gregory acknowledges that this might work on graph paper but insists nonetheless on knowing the specifics of how the reanimations are happening. Sciss sneers: “You’re acting like a child who is shown Maxwell’s theorem and a diagram of a radio receiver and then asks, ‘How does this box talk?'” Sciss himself doesn’t care what the mechanism is. Maybe it’s flying saucers, he says, or maybe it has to do with the dead cats and dogs that have been found near some of the moved corpses. Why would any scientifically minded person feel he needs to know? Any intuitive sense of the world is just an illusion. “So-called common sense,” Sciss lectures Gregory and a few friends, a few nights later, over dinner, “relies on programmed nonperception, concealment, or ridicule of everything that doesn’t fit into the conventional nineteenth century vision of a world that can be explained down to the last detail.”

By the end of the book, Gregory is trying to make this language his own:

>What if the world isn’t scattered around us like a jigsaw puzzle—what if it’s like a soup with all kinds of things floating around in it, and from time to time some of them get stuck together by chance to make some kind of whole? . . . Using religion and philosophy as the cement, we perpetually collect and assemble all the garbage comprised by statistics in order to make sense out of things, to make everything respond in one unified voice like a bell chiming to our glory. But it’s only soup.

It’s at this point—at the end of a long ramble that Gregory makes while staring at one of the pictures of dead people that the chief for some reason keeps on his walls at home—that the chief, recognizing that Gregory has exhausted his intellectual resources, offers the explanation that doesn’t really explain anything but allows them to close the case, at least as a matter of bureaucratic procedure.

It doesn’t feel right, of course—not to Gregory, not to the reader. Understanding the world as a sequence of shifting patterns is inimical to the way detectives understand the world, and to the way most other humans do, as well. In his extremity, Gregory seizes for a while on Sciss as the likeliest suspect, since he seems to understand what’s going on better than anyone else, but Gregory loses his nerve; he’s unable to trick himself into believing that Sciss is really guilty. Along the way, in his intellectual desperation, he elaborates Sciss’s casual mention of flying saucers into an intriguing, completely bonkers theory: maybe the agent spreading the not-dying-of-cancer isn’t something like a virus but rather a set of microscopic “information-gathering instruments” sent to Earth by an intelligent alien civilization:

Once on Earth they ignore living organisms and are directed—programmed would be a better word—only to the dead. Why? First, so they won’t hurt anyone—this proves that the star people are humane. Second, ask yourself this. How does a mechanic learn about a machine? He starts it up and watches it in operation. The information-collectors do exactly the same thing.

It’s natural that we humans don’t understand what’s going on, Gregory theorizes, because we don’t have a native information-collecting device like this on Earth: “The information-collector seems to act rationally; therefore, it isn’t a device or tool in our sense of the word. It’s probably more comparable to a hunting dog.” More than half a century ago, in other words, Lem was predicting AI search agents.

In the same novel, he also predicted universal artificial-intelligence surveillance. Sciss comes up with it. Demoralized by the then-incipient nuclear arms race, Sciss foresees an accompanying race in command-and-control systems, as they are perfected and expanded.

There must be more and more improvements in weaponry, but after a certain point weapons reach their limit. What can be improved next? Brains. The brains that issue the commands. . . The next stage will be a fully automated headquarters equipped with electronic strategy machines. . . . Strategic considerations dictate the construction of bigger and bigger machines, and, whether we like it or not, this inevitably means an increase in the amount of information stored in the brains. This in turns means that the brain will steadily increase its control over all of society’s collective processes.

A prediction that seems to have come true, though Lem was slightly wrong about the inciting force. The motive, in the event, wasn’t binary but multipolar: rather than being driven by the rivalry of just America versus the Soviet Union, the digitization of everything was driven by the rivalry of thousands of capitalist firms jockeying for market share.

So what happens in The Investigation? A novel isn’t a set of falsifiable hypotheses, but my sense is that Lem was imagining, by means of a deliberately broken detective story, what it was going to feel like when, instead of seeing the world as a field for intentions and actions, either ours or God’s, we began to see it as merely information in flux, subject to collection and to some extent prediction by artificial intelligence.