(Not)owner: Hugo Steinhaus’ House

ID: 252
Nationalization of private townhouses for representatives of Soviet administration. Short biography of Hugo Steinhaus. Professor position and new neighbours. 

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 beginning of the Soviet occupation, Soviet administration employees, the military, NKVD employees with their families, and thousands of refugees started arriving in Lviv. As soon as the autumn of 1939 there was a problem with the accommodation of newly arrived residents of Lviv. A large-scale nationalization of housing — rooms, apartments, and entire townhouses — was beginning in the city.

Usually a so-called commission consisting of two or three people came to the owners and informed them about the nationalization of the townhouse. If the owner flatly refused to sign the nationalization act, he was at best forced to pay fairly high taxes, which could not be earned from the maintenance of the building. In the worst case, the "former" owner was evicted and deprived not only of the house but of all movable and immovable property. After signing the nationalization act, some former owners were allowed to remain in the house as residents, their living space and property significantly limited.

After the appropriation, the houses were managed by house managers — the administration of state buildings, whose responsibilities covered both registration and payment of utilities, prices being set by the state.

Given the number of newcomers, the nationalization of housing, and the Soviet practice of settling new neighbours in apartments, these situations caused a great deal of conflicts and inconvenience. Ironically, among all potential neighbours it was NKVD officers, Red Army officers or senior party officials and their families who were considered a "lesser evil" given their relatively slightly higher household culture as well as some potential protection. However, only residents of prestigious areas and comfortable townhouses could boast of such neighbours.

Among those "privileged", there was the family of Hugo Steinhaus, who was a mathematician and a professor at Lviv University, the founder of the Lviv School of Mathematics and the author of the book Mathematical Kaleidoscope.

Hugo Steinhaus came from a wealthy family and graduated from Göttingen University. He did not like booze, was more than scrupulous in his accounts, never appeared in public without a tie, and considered his greatest scientific discovery to be the genius of Stefan Banach. The beginning of the war caught the Steinhaus family in the Carpathians, and after much deliberation and hesitation as to whether to escape to Hungary, they decided to return to Lviv. The family arrived in the city on the fourth day of the occupation, September 26, 1939, after the resumption of railway traffic.

Arriving at his house on ul. Kadecka 14 (now vul. Heroiv Maydanu), Steinhaus got new "neighbours". NKVD officers and their families were already accommodated in a part of the building owned by the family before the war and lived there till the Nazi occupation. The townhouse was nationalized and never restituited to the Steinhaus family.

Unlike his colleague Stefan Banach, Hugo Steinhaus left memories about the period of Soviet occupation. His attitude towards Soviet rule was skeptical and, taking into account his diary, even hostile, which, however, did not prevent him from continuing to work at Lviv University.

The staff of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics was one of the few that had virtually not changed since the pre-war time. Steinhaus kept teaching and agreed to have his book Mathematical Kaleidoscope translated into Russian. While working at the university, Professor Steinhaus avoided active public life and mission trips in every possible way and found various reasons not to take part in Soviet scientific life. In his memoirs written during the Nazi occupation, the professor was very critical of the new regime, criticized some colleagues and had a very negative attitude towards the Ukrainianization of university education. At the same time, he became a member of the Lviv branch of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, headed by Stefan Banach, and received a fairly high salary.

Despite the nationalized townhouse and sharing the building with NKVD officials, Hugo Steinhaus's living and working conditions were better than those of other Lviv residents. Exact sciences were a priority for the Soviet government, so good specialists, Hugo Steinhaus certainly included, retained positions and opportunities to work for some time; this, however, did not exclude them from the circle of former owners of nationalized buildings.

Hugo Steinhaus left his townhouse on ul. Kadecka 14 in the early days of the Nazi occupation. He never returned to Lviv after the war.

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1. Оля Гнатюк, Відвага і страх (Київ: Дух і Літера, 2015), 496.
2. Mariusz Urbanek, Genialni. Lwowska szkoła matematyczna (Warszawa: Iskry, 2014), 284.
3. Anna Legierska, Geniusze i romantyce. Matematycy z kawiarni Szkockiej, cultura.pl (режим доступу: 05.02.2019).

Inna Zolotar
Translated by Andriy Masliukh