New opportunities? Ludwik Fleck

ID: 255
Short biography of Ludwik Fleck as an example of opportunities for intelligentsia that were opened by the Soviet rule and were not possible in the interwar period.

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.

With the appearance of the term "occupation" in regard to the period from September 1939 to June 1941 in Ukrainian historical narrative, new challenges have also arisen: how to speak about the activities of scientists, artists, writers and literary critics, if they were not arrested or repressed by the Soviet authorities, and some, on the contrary, got new opportunities? Lacking practice of public discussion of such a complex phenomenon as collaboration, of options and dimensions proper to cooperation with the occupying power and of consistency in terminology leads either to the omission of this period in biographies or museum exhibitions or to a very brief mention of the Soviet page in history. Our neighbours, Poland in particular, experience similar problems. Thus the Soviet period in the biography of many scholars is still little known and little studied.

Ludwik Fleck was one of those who had the opportunity to return to Lviv University to work after the beginning of the Soviet occupation. Fleck is known as a microbiologist and philosopher of science. A Lviv-born Jew, integrated into Polish culture, he graduated from the Jan Kazimierz University and was an assistant to Professor Rudolf Weigl in Przemyśl in the 1920s. In 1921 he returned to Lviv and worked at Lviv University until the 1930s. Due to his Jewish origin, he was forced to stop working because of an anti-Semitic campaign launched in universities against both professors and students. He founded his own private bacteriological laboratory on ul. Ochronki 8 (now vul. Konyskoho).

In early 1940, with the support of Maksym Muzyka (a microbiologist and doctor of medicine, husband of Yaroslava Muzyka), he got a job at the Department of Microbiology at Lviv University, which he headed; at the same time Fleck managed the laboratory in Professor Groer's clinic (vul. Chernihivska 1/3). He held both positions till the Nazi occupation.

Later, there was the ghetto, collaboration with Rudolf Weigl and deportation to Auschwitz, where he was forced to work in the Waffen-SS laboratory. Fleck survived in Buchenwald and, despite allegations of collaboration with the Nazis due to his work in the laboratory of Weigl, acted as an expert in the Nuremberg Trials. After the war, the Fleck family remained in Poland. From 1945 to 1952, Fleck headed the Department of Microbiology at the Medical Faculty of the University of Lublin and later the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Institute of Mother and Child in Warsaw.

He published a total of 177 books and articles, some of which were translated into several languages. Remarkably, both before and after the war Ludwik Fleck worked on the empirical data of his research together with Hugo Steinhaus, the founder of the world-famous Lviv School of Mathematics. After his death, the scientist and physician Marcus Klingberg held meetings in Paris to commemorate him. An interest in Fleck as a philosopher of science was aroused by Thomas Kuhn who mentioned Fleck's work Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, published in German in Basel in 1935, in the introduction to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Ludwik Fleck's biography is an example of new possibilities, on the one hand. The new occupation authorities needed specialists and provided opportunities for professional self-fulfilment regardless of nationality. On the other hand, for the possibility of professional self-fulfilment, the Soviet regime demanded at least visible loyalty and the adoption of new rules. The question of choice, one’s own principles and responsibility is what the Lviv professors faced during the occupation.

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1. Оля Гнатюк, Відвага і страх (Київ: Дух і Літера, 2015), 496.
2. Шепетяк О. Людвік Флєк та основні ідеї його філософії, Людинознавчі студії. Збірник наукових праць ДДПУ (Дрогобич: Науково-видавничий центр ДДПУ, 2007), Випуск 16. Філософія, 136–145. 

Cover photo: St. Sophia Children's Hospital (pediatric hospital) on modern-day vul. Chernihivska, 1912–1916. Source: City Media Archive of the Center for Urban History
Inna Zolotar
Translated by Andriy Masliukh