Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz protected Jews during the Holocaust, wrote poems that inspired millions, and advocated passionately for freedom of thought and human rights.
Czeslaw was born in 1911 to an illustrious family descended from Polish nobility. At the time of his birth, Poland was not an independent country and the Milosz clan lived in an area that was part of the Russian Empire. He spent his early childhood on his grandfather’s estate, but when World War I broke out in 1914, the family was thrown into turmoil. Czeslaw’s father was drafted into the Russian army, and Czeslaw and his mother spent the next four years fleeing the Germans in (modern-day) Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. When the war ended, the family settled in Vilna.
Exceptionally intelligent and curious, Czeslaw learned six languages (Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, French, and Hebrew.) He entered law school at the prestigious Stefan Batory University when he was only 18 years old, but found his true calling and talent in poetry. He published his first poems in the university magazine in 1930, and formed a student poetry group and an “Intellectuals Club.”
Czeslaw had many Jewish friends at the university, and was shocked when an antisemitic mob attacked Jews on campus. Czeslaw bravely stood up to the mob and protected the Jewish students. Sadly one student was killed when a large rock was thrown at his head.
The incident influenced Czeslaw’s writing, and he described his work as “Poetry of Protest.” While still a student, Czeslaw published his first volume of poetry. After graduating from university, Czeslaw worked at a radio station in Vilna. He produced a wide range of programming for the station, including performances by Jewish musicians and writers. As Hitler rose to power, his hateful ideology took hold among many Lithuanian nationalists. Czeslaw’s showcasing Jewish voices on the radio led to an anonymous complaint falsely accusing him of fomenting communism, and he was fired.
Czeslaw moved back to Poland, now an independent republic, and worked at Polish Radio in Warsaw. He published another volume of poetry, which quickly gained acclaim among poetry-lovers and critics. He was compared to legendary 19th century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Czeslaw became an active member of the Polish underground resistance. The Nazis persecuted Polish intellectuals and artists, and Czeslaw published his next book of poetry under a pseudonym, which he also used for his translations of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.
Horrified at the violent and vicious persecution of Jews in Warsaw, Czeslaw, along with his brother Andrzej, began helping Jews hide or escape from the Nazis. He defied the Nazis to help at least five Polish Jews and maybe more, providing them a place to hide as well as financial support. Czeslaw knew that the penalty for this transgression was death, but his moral compass did not allow him to stand idly by. In late 1944 Czeslaw was captured by the Germans and held in a prisoner transit camp. Miraculously, he was helped by a Catholic nun (and total stranger) who somehow convinced the Germans to let him go.
After the war, Czeslaw published his powerful fourth collection of poetry, focusing on the loss of three million Polish Jews, and the willful blindness of much of the Polish population. Came po dei Fiori, written in 1943, became one of his best-known works. It described the suffering and carnage inside the Warsaw ghetto, and the cluelessness of those outside its gates. The poem includes searing imagery: “The salvoes behind the ghetto walls/were drowned in lively tunes/and vapors freely rose/into the tranquil sky./Sometimes the wind from burning houses would bring the kites along/and people on the merry-go-round/caught the flying charred bits./This wind from burning houses/blew open the girls’s skirts/and the happy throngs laughed/on a beautiful Warsaw Sunday.”
Czeslaw received increasing recognition for his work, which ultimately inspired long-overdue public reckoning and introspection on Poles’ failure to protect the three million Jews in their midst. In 1949 he was appointed a cultural attache for the communist People’s Republic of Poland, although he opposed Soviet ideology. During this time he moved from New York to Washington DC and then Paris, creating events highlighting Polish culture, publishing articles, and translating important literary works into Polish, his mother tongue. He returned to Poland for a visit in 1949, and was shocked at what had happened to the country. Stalinist oppression had created a culture of fear and lies, and Czeslaw spoke out against it, leading to his firing and escape from Poland to Paris in 1951. During the tumult he was separated from his wife Janina and their children. They were in the United States, but because of the old smear against Czeslaw of being a communist, McCarthyism led to Czeslaw being refused entry. He received political asylum in France, and spoke out against Stalinism, which led to all of works being banned in his native land. He published two poetry collections, two novels, and a memoir, written in Polish and published by fellow Polish ex-pats. He finally reunited with his family in 1953.
In 1960, Czeslaw became a visiting lecturer at Berkeley, and American audiences discovered his work for the first time. He published scholarly works on Dostoevsky, among other important writers. Czeslaw took a break from teaching in 1978 to focus on writing full-time. During the Stalinist years, Czeslaw’s work was a source of inspiration to the the Polish anti-communist Solidarity movement.
Czeslaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, leading to global recognition and the publication of his work in Poland. After 30 years in exile, Czeslaw returned to Poland for a visit and was greeted by adoring crowds proud of the attention and respect he brought to Polish literature. He met with Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II and used his newfound fame to advocate for writers who were persecuted for their beliefs.
Czeslaw became a poetry professor at Harvard in 1981, and continued to publish poetry in Polish. His wife Janina died in 1986, and after the fall of communism in 1989 he began to spend more time in Poland, finally moving back in 2000. Czeslaw Milosz died in Krakow in 2004, at age 93. He received a state funeral and thousands of people lined the streets to watch his coffin travel by a military escort to the cemetery. At the funeral, noted poets Seamus Heaney, Adam Zagajewski, and Robert Hass read Czeslaw’s poetry in all the languages he knew: Polish, French, English, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew.
During his lifetime and posthumously, Czeslaw received many honors and awards, including Righteous Among the Nations at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. His work was enormously influential among the greatest poets of the age, including Robert Pinsky, Ted Hughes, Robert Strand and Derek Walcott. Raised Catholic, Czeslaw became an atheist as a young man, but later returned to the faith of his youth and was buried at Skalka Roman Catholic Church.
For saving lives and writing poetry for the ages, we honor Czeslaw Milosz as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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