Stanislaw Ulam; A Polish Jew in the Old World and the New

In 1972, I returned to Gainesville and through my then father-in-law, Harry Sisler, was introduced to Stan and Françoise Ulam. I became part of their circle and was regularly invited to their flat to join their friends and colleagues. Stan, a world famous mathematician, came to Gainesville during the spring semesters, joining the University of Florida’s Department of Mathematics. I couldn’t keep up with the math, so Françoise and I became good acquaintances.


Ulam born in Lwów, Poland in 1909 had received his education and graduate degrees from the city’s Polytechnic Institute in 1933. Like many other young European scientists and mathematicians, he traveled around to various university cities in Europe — Wilno, Vienna, Zurich, and Cambridge – getting to know the European mathematics/physics world and getting to be known. Prospects for a position in Poland were poor in 1933.


Stan Ulam was from a Polish-Jewish business family. His father, Józef Ulam, had also been born in Lwów (then called Lemberg), his mother was from Stryi (present-day Ukraine). The family was well off, though not rich; they owned the large apartment building in which they lived. Stan’s uncle, Michal Ulam, was wealthy, a prominent architect, builder, and lumber merchant. Also living in Lwów, the two families were close.


Stan and his family lived in Vienna during World War I. Vienna was still an imperial city, capital of the Austrian Empire of which Lwów was an educational and administrative center for the province of Galicia.  The family returned to their home town in 1919 shortly before the Polish-Ukrainian War broke out, along with a pogrom.


Lwów had long been a site of Polish-Ukrainian nationalist conflict. After much negotiation Ukrainian forces withdrew from the city in November 1918 leaving it in Polish hands and subject to Polish anti-Semitism. Demobilized Polish soldiers and deserters looted and burned parts of the Ukrainian and Jewish quarters of the city and killed an unknown number of Jews. The Lwów pogrom received wide attention and condemnation in Western Europe and North America.


Lwów was the third largest city in Poland, around 320,000 in 1918, with both a distinguished Lwów University and the Polytechnic. The city was becoming more Polish in a Poland reconstituted in1919 by the Versailles Treaty. It was 51% Catholic and 28% Jewish, both Polish-speaking. The remainder were mostly Ukrainians and Germans.


Despite the civil war and pogrom, the Ulams seem to have been comfortable with a Polish Lwów. Many of its Jewish families were prominent in business and the professions. Stan and his family identified with their Polish background. Like many Jews in Eastern Europe, the Ulams also thought of themselves as citizens of the wider European world, good Europeans.


While living in Lwów and attending the Polytechnic, Stan had been a member of a famous Polish mathematical circle, the Lwów Mathematics Club, that met periodically in the Scottish Café, a coffee house, to discuss mathematical problems. Several of his fellow conversationalists eventually taught at the University.


Many of Lwów’s Polish intelligentsia met a horrible fate during World War II. In July 1941 as part of the German campaign to wipe out the Polish intelligentsia, twenty-five of the University’s faculty and their families were shot, clubbed to death, or bayonetted by a Nazi Einsatzgruppen. Polish and Jewish intellectuals, political and cultural activists, scientists and mathematicians, and other members of Poland’s distinguished interwar intellectual elite were German targets.


Family letters written mostly by Ulam’s father from 1936 to 1940 make it clear that the city’s Jews had no idea of what was about to befall them. Poland was suffering from a prolonged economic and political crisis, but there was always in the elder Ulam’s letters the hope that things would soon improve, right themselves.


Stan’s ambitions and smarts brought him to the U.S in 1936, having won a scholarship to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton where many displaced European scientists landed in the ’30s, including Albert Einstein.  He was encouraged to apply by John von Neumann, a Hungarian/American mathematician, who was a bit older than Stan but already world famous. That led to an invitation of the Society of Fellows at Harvard.


From 1936 to 1939 Stan returned to Poland to spend his summers with his family and math colleagues. In 1939 Stan’s father decided that Stan should return to the U.S. with his younger brother Adam, then 16. The passenger liner in which he had booked passage for his two sons was scheduled to leave from Gdynia in September 1939, but the tickets were rebooked for an earlier August 20 sailing. That, it turns out, would be its last sailing until after WWII. Had it not been for the rebooking, it is likely that neither Stan nor Adam would have made it out of Poland. The Germans captured the Gdynia and its port in mid-September and immediately massacred 12,000 of the city’s citizens.


By 1939 it was becoming all too obvious that a Jewish family should send its sons off to the Americas. Both father and uncle were astute men of the world and could understand the dangers that a Nazi Germany posed to Jews. But the immediate threat was Polish. Polish nationalists were seeking to overturn the disproportionate share of university admissions – the “Jewish advantage” – enjoyed by Polish Jews. The nationalists demanded Jewish quotas and that the Jews be physically separated from non-Jews in educational institutions, thus the “ghetto benches.” Then there was the ordinary street anti-Semitism that had long been a part of Polish life.


Still there was no panic. Letters to the sons in America from tatus (daddy) and mamasia (mommy) seem mostly concerned about their not drinking or smoking while in America. When they found out that Stan had purchased a car, they worried about his “hot rodding.” Stan was now in his early thirties!


Adam Ulam got his Brown University education at his brother’s expense. He later became a distinguished historian of the Soviet Union, called a ‘Kremlinologist,’ at Harvard.


Lwów was occupied by Russian troops as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. The Soviet occupation lasted for about two years until the city was overrun by the German army as part of Operation Barbarossa in the spring of 1941.


There is much controversy about the level of participation of Ukrainian nationalists and militia members in the destruction of Jewish Lwów during the German occupation. Certainly Ukrainians identified the Polish Christians and Polish Jews that were to be killed. This German-Ukrainian alliance perpetrated the largest slaughter yet.


Lwów later became the location of a Jewish ghetto of some 120,000 Jews. In 1943 most of them were eventually sent to Belźec, Poland, and killed. Stanislaw and Adam were safe in America. The rest of the family (father, uncle, sister, niece, cousins) died in the Polish holocaust. (Ulam’s mother had died of cancer in 1938.)


A cousin wrote to Stan and Adam after the war with the details of their sister’s death. Stefa and her child were hidden by a Polish Christian woman along with several other Polish Jews. Betrayed by a neighbor, the five in hiding were arrested by the Gestapo and the benefactress shot. The Gestapo commanding officer offered to spare the five if they could pay, and one of the women offered some family valuables hidden in Lwów. The officer concluded that the worth of the jewelry could only save two and gave the woman a few hours to make a choice of whom would be spared. She ultimately saved herself and her mother, sacrificing her grandfather, Stefa, and her toddler-Stan’s niece, who were shot on the spot. The notion of “choosing” is a common element in survival stories (“Sophie’s Choice”.)


Stan told me the story about his having gotten his brother out of Poland. He never mentioned the fate of the rest of his family, although Françoise once mentioned to me how traumatic that last separation from his family had been.


Like so many educated European Jewish exiles, Stan found an appointment in an American university, in his case the University of Wisconsin. In 1941 he became an American citizen and married Françoise Aron. Born in Paris, Françoise had come to the U.S. as an exchange student in 1939.


Stan began to notice that his colleagues at Wisconsin were suddenly gone off to some kind of war work, he began looking around for an opportunity. In 1943 he was invited to join a group of scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico working on a secret project. It turned out to be the creation of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.


Back to Los Alamos in 1947, he worked on the hydrogen bomb project again with Von Neumann. He is given credit for coming up with the idea behind the exploding device in the fusion bomb and also the mathematical insight that solved a major difficulty in the detonation process. While there, he worked with Edward Teller and they applied for a patent on the design for the bomb. Later they had a falling out and, I think, never received the patent.


After the war Stan traveled around to various universities for short appointments before settling at the University of Colorado (Boulder). One day while living in L.A., he had a severe headache and the next morning had lost his ability to speak. A surgeon drilled a hole in his skull and found that he had an inflammation on the brain. Stan told me about this himself. Recuperating from the operation, he worried about his having a permanent mental impairment. But one day (I think while waiting for Françoise at the L.A. airport) he realized that he could still solve mathematical problems and that his analytical skills were just fine.


My visits to the Ulams usually involved late afternoon tea. On one occasion Françoise asked Stan to turn on the stove burner under the teapot. Time went by and Françoise noticed that the tea kettle was not whistling. It turns out that Stan had not figured out how to turn on the stove. Françoise noted the irony of his having invented how to turn on the hydrogen bomb, but not their stove.


The Ulams stopped coming to Gainesville, preferring their home in Santa Fe, which was near their only child, a daughter Clair. Stan died in 1984, Françoise in 2011 at the age of 93.


Thanks to Adam Ulam’s letters and family memoirs available on the internet at and to Wikipedia.


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