Lem in Kraków

17 August 2021

Stanisław Lem’s life in Kraków tells the tale of how he became an author and built his literary career.

In 1945, Kraków became home to Stanisław Lem, one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time. He arrived from Lviv where he had spent a happy childhood, and where, at the threshold of adulthood, he had lived through the horrors of the Second World War. He never returned to his old hometown, and Kraków became his safe haven. According to his biographer Wojciech Orliński, no other city could have created the right opportunities to push Lem towards a literary career. Had he lived elsewhere he might have become a doctor (more later) or any other professional – after all we know Lem’s imagination was boundless. Let’s follow in the author’s footsteps in Kraków to discover which locations played the most important role in his life and perhaps sealed his literary fate. So let’s start from the beginning…

In summer 1945, Stanisław Lem left Lviv with his mother Sabina and father Samuel on one of the first repatriation transports to the Recovered Territories. Instead of going all the way, they disembarked in Kraków and headed to Śląska Street, to a two-room flat rented by close friends: the Kołodziej family. They took a room in the lodge with a niche separated by a curtain. It was there, in the niche, that Stanisław wrote The Astronauts and Hospital of the Transfiguration.

Soon after arriving in Kraków, Samuel found a job at a hospital and his son went back to medical school he’d started back in Lviv. The Nowodworski Collegium, then home to the Medical Academy, is the next stop along the route of places which influenced Lem’s choice of career. He was never enthusiastic about medicine and only enrolled at medical school under his father’s pressure; he was far more drawn to engineering and had considered studying at the Lviv Polytechnic. As he restarted medical school in Kraków, he became increasingly convinced he didn’t want to become a doctor – but he did become passionate about science. He was studying under Dr. Mieczysław Choynowski who’d suggested fascinating reading materials. Lem quickly got to grips with the principles of science, which later made him stand out from many other science fiction authors and drove him to write masterpieces such as Solaris and His Master’s Voice. In 1949, Lem deliberately flunked his finals and didn’t get his medical diploma.

His literary interests were growing rapidly, and he encountered another person who had a major influence on his career: Jerzy Turowicz. The legendary editor-in-chief of the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly also recommended books to young Stanisław, especially classic literature. Lem found himself working at the editorial office at 12 Wiślna Street – one of the few places behind the Iron Curtain able to publish writings relatively free of communist propaganda. “Tygodnik Powszechny” published a few of his early poems and stories. He enjoyed the atmosphere so much that he kept returning to the office even after he became a successful writer, simply for a chat.

At the threshold of his literary career, Lem was faced with a major communist-era obstacle: the requirement to list his profession in his official ID. As a would-be doctor and aspiring author he couldn’t simply state he was a writer; first he had to enrol at the Polish Writers’ Union, which was impossible without presenting a body of work. Although he had published a few poems and stories, including The Man from Mars, this was deemed insufficient. He was saved by Kraków’s unique atmosphere and the close ties of the literary community. In 1950, Lem met Jerzy Pański, an influential editor from the Czytelnik publishing house. He soon signed a book contract, and published The Astronauts the following year to great acclaim. This finally allowed Lem to present himself at Kraków’s branch of the Polish Writers’ Union to (literally!) seal his fate as an author.

Soon afterwards, he married the medical doctor Barbara Leśniak in a church wedding in 1953 followed by a civil ceremony the year after. He was still living at his cubicle at Śląska Street, so the young couple couldn’t move in together at first – he even joked that theirs was a “remote marriage”. A few years later, after Samuel’s passing, Sabina Lem and the Kołodziej family moved to a more comfortable flat, taking four rooms at 5 Bonerowska Street. It was there that Lem wrote his canonical Eden, Dialogues and the first stories about Tichy and Pirx.

As well as being published by Czytelnik, his works were also issued by publishers such as Iskry and Książka i Wiedza. By the late 1950s Lem realised that Wydawnictwo Literackie was the most resilient to censorship, allowing him to publish Dialogues and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. Lem remained a regular author of the publishing house, originally located at 25 Main Market Square and later at the Pod Globusem House at 1 Długa Street. By a happy coincidence, the latter was also surrounded by little shops selling Lem’s favourites such as halva and marzipan. He also stopped for sweet delicacies at the patisserie at Cracovia Hotel at 1 Focha Avenue – at the time the most modern hotel in Poland welcoming Western tourists visiting Kraków. He also stopped at the nearby kiosk which sold international newspapers.

The final spot on Lem’s trail in Kraków is the Kliny estate in Borek Fałęcki district. In late 1957, Stanisław and Barbara bought an unfinished house there, immediately falling into an endless spiral of renovations (drenching the foundations, fixing the roof…) and finally moving into their new home a year later. They received frequent visitors, including their neighbour Jan Błoński and Jan Józef Szczepański. Eventually, in 1978, the Lem family built a larger and more comfortable house a little way down the same street. It was the golden era of Stanisław’s writing career. Having moved to the far suburbs, he was also able to finally fulfil his dream of owning a car, starting with the East German AWZ P70. He later upgraded it to a Wartburg 1000, followed by a Fiat 1800, Fiat 125p and even a Mercedes-Benz W126. But that’s a whole other story… (Anna Mazur)

In writing this article, I reached for Wojciech Orliński’s piece in the guide Kraków. Tales from the City of Literature and his biography Lem. A Life Out Of This World.

The text published in the 2/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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