Stanisaw Lem (lehm) was born in Lvov, Poland (now Lvov, Ukraine), on September 12, 1921. His father, Samuel, was a physician who served for a time with the Austro-Hungarian military. In 1915, during World War I, Samuel had been taken prisoner by the Russian army. He was nearly executed for being a class enemy but was saved when an old acquaintance interceded at the last minute.
After the war, Samuel Lem became a successful otolaryngologist in Lvov. By the time Stanisaw was born, Samuel and his wife, Sabina Wollner, were very prosperous. Unlike many who lived in Poland between the world wars, the Lems had a fine home, where young Stanisaw was cared for by a French governess and never lacked for toys. As a young boy, Lem’s reading consisted largely of his father’s medical books, at which his father forbid him to look. One of his prized possessions from this time was a science book that his father had given him and that cost seventy zlotys, the price of a suit of clothes.
According to Lem’s own account of his life, he was a quiet and imaginative young boy. He preferred solitude to a life among friends, and to amuse himself he created fantasy kingdoms where he had great power and high prestige. Each element in his imaginary life was legitimized by a complete file of papers, including passports, diplomas, and certificates of various kinds. Although he admits that this love of fantasized power and reputation might indicate childhood insecurities, he remembers having had no such feelings.
In 1932, Lem began college at the Karol S. Szajnocha II State Grammar School, graduating in 1939. He went on to study medicine at Lvov University from 1940 through 1941, but his schooling was interrupted by the advent of World War II. During the war, Lem became aware of his Jewish ancestry as a result of the anti-Semitic measures introduced by the invading Nazis.
Despite the many hardships they endured, the Lems escaped confinement in the Jewish ghetto because Samuel had obtained false papers to hide the family’s true identity. During the occupation, Lem worked as a mechanic helper and welder for a German company recycling raw materials. He visited the ghetto on occasion and performed acts in support of the resistance movement, but through a combination of careful planning and sheer luck he managed to survive the occupation, unlike many of his friends. His luck in living through the war made the element of chance an important theme in many of his later novels. He resumed his medical studies in 1944, when the Soviet army liberated Lvov.
In 1946, the Lems moved to a one-room apartment in Krakow. The family was now poor, having...
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