Stefan Banach

ID: 256
Biography of Stefan Manach as a professor who continued his academic career in Soviet insitutions without involvement in political and national disputes.

This story is a part of the theme about Soviet Occupation in 1939-1941, prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

After the collapse of the USSR, the historical narrative of most Eastern European countries regarding the period 1939–1941 confidently includes the term "occupation". However, with the advent of new terminology in the public historical space, they faced a new problem of how to treat people who were not only not repressed by the Soviet authorities, but also worked quite actively, in particular in science.
In Polish historiography, the Soviet period in the biographies of scholars is either suppressed or mentioned in passing and very superficially. In Ukrainian historiography, problems mostly arise with the assessment of classical scholars’ activities, while the activities of technical scholars in the Soviet period do not cause any serious discussion and controversy. Interpreting the role of scholars present and important for both Polish and Ukrainian narratives can be a real challenge.

The Szkocka (pol. for Scottish) café was a favorite meeting place for representatives of the Lviv School of Mathematics. One of its regular visitors, both in the interwar period and after the beginning of the Soviet occupation, was Stefan Banach, a mathematician, one of the creators of modern mathematical analysis.

Banach was the only Pole to become the dean of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics in 1940. The faculty was established after the reformatting of the pre-war Lviv University structure. Before the war, along with the Faculty of Natural Sciences, it was part of the same Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

Stefan Banach owed this position to his origins "from the people": the illegitimate son of an illiterate maid and a soldier, he was raised in a laundress’ family. The mathematical genius became a professor without a university degree, loved football, which was considered a "plebeian" sport, did not care about his lack of good manners, spent more than he earned, loved to drink and always preferred coffee houses, as opposed to boring university departments.

In addition, the Soviet administration appreciated a certain apoliticalness of Banach in the interwar period. Banach was well known in the USSR as a genius mathematician, for many people he was a legend. His work Theory of Operations aroused great enthusiasm and admiration of Soviet mathematicians; in the end, the activity of the entire Lviv School of Mathematics greatly influenced the development of Soviet science. During the Soviet occupation, a delegation of mathematicians led by Sergei Sobolev and Pavel Alexandrov visited Lviv, met Stefan Banach, visited the Szkocka café and left notes in the Scottish Book. Later, there was Banach's trip to Moscow, the translation of his works into Russian and a very fruitful collaboration with Moscow mathematicians.

Banach himself left no memories. However, he is mentioned in memoirs, his biographies have been written, he is the only representative of the Lviv School of Mathematics who was honoured with a memorial plaque on the old building of Lviv University on modern¬-day vul. Mykhaila Hrushevskoho 4, where the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics was located, now occupied by the Faculty of Biology.

Banach is remembered and recalled both in Poland and in Ukraine. Polish historiography describes very well the interwar period of his activity, the discovery of his genius by Hugo Steinhaus, stories about his unfinished higher education and taking exams, about liters of coffee with cognac drunk in the Szkocka café and daily gatherings with students and like-minded people, as well as Stefan Banach’s life in Lviv during the Nazi occupation, feeding lice at the Weigl Institute and the last year of his life.

Yet there is not much information about the period 1939–1941 in the mathematician’s biography available in Polish studies. For example, in Mariusz Urbanek's book Geniuses. Lviv School of Mathematics only one page is dedicated to Banach's successes in the Soviet period. Urbanek calls Banach the dean, but does not mention that the mathematician was offered this position during the Soviet period. Also, the book Geniuses does not mention either Stefan Banach's membership in the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR or his position in the Lviv City Council. Mariusz Urbanek described the attitude of Soviet mathematicians towards Banach as a genius, but he did not mention the mathematician's visits to Moscow and his close cooperation with the Soviet mathematical school.

Everything Mariusz Urbanek does not mention about the mathematician in his book can be found in modern Ukrainian scientific and public space. In addition to the activities of Stefan Banach as dean of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics and his scientific achievements, his apolitical and friendly attitude to Ukrainian colleagues at the university, his attempts to teach in Ukrainian at the request of the Soviet authorities are also described. Moreover, such an active presence of Banach in the academic life of the university during the Soviet occupation gives reason for some historians to call Banach a Ukrainian mathematician, which is not true.

While Banach takes the honourable first place in the mathematic milieu among the representatives of the Lviv School of Mathematics due to his scientific achievements, his presence in the non-mathematical are can be explained by the convenience of his biography. For some it is an interesting life story in interwar Lviv, flavoured with legends, coffee and the Scottish Book, for others he is also dear given his tolerant attitude to colleagues, active work in the days of Ukrainianization of the university and sincere commitment to research despite the regime change. It is this acceptance of Stefan Banach that makes his story universal, in which each national narrative chooses its own aspects.

All stories



Prosp. Shevchenka, 27 – hotel Atlas (former residential building)

Show full description


1. Mariusz Urbanek, Genialni. Lwowska szkoła matematyczna (Warszawa: Iskry, 2014), 284.
2. Оля Гнатюк, Відвага і страх (Київ: Дух і Літера, 2015), 496.
3. Легендарний Стефан Банах і його математична школа. Зустріч з Ярославом Притулою, zaxid.net (accessed on 05.02.2019).
4. Anna Legierska, Geniusze i romantyce. Matematycy z kawiarni Szkockiej, cultura.pl (accessed on 05.02.2019).

Cover photo: Stefan Banach, a mathematician, professor at Lviv University. Source: Collection of the Polish National Digital Archive (NAC 1-N-25)
Inna Zolotar
Translated by Andriy Masliukh