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Czeslaw Milosz - Lithuania's native foreign son

  • 2004-08-19
  • By Steven Paulikas
"A Poor Christian Girl Looks at the Ghetto"
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
Who has sat much in the light of candles
Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
The uncircumcised.
Czeslaw Milosz, Warsaw, 1943
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz

VILNIUS - When he crafted his autobiography, "Native Realm," in 1959, Czeslaw Milosz chose the following opening lines: "For many centuries, while kingdoms rose and fell along the shores of the Mediterranean and countless generations handed down their refined pleasures and vices, my native land was a virgin forest whose only visitors were the few Viking ships that landed on the coast."
Milosz's lengthy and abstract description of his "native land" - Lithuania - is a fitting start to the story of his life, since for him the search for self and gaining deeper understanding of one's home were parallel and inseparable pursuits.
Milosz's death on Aug. 14 marked not only the end of a remarkable life. It was also the passing of arguably the greatest spokesman and representative of a Lithuania that, in Milosz's mind, was bigger than its present incarnation.
Milosz was the self-proclaimed "last citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania," the state that once covered most of northeastern Europe and united disparate ethnic and linguistic groups under one flag.
But more than that, Milosz's homeland constituted an entire world that gave birth both to him and to the unique mindset that allowed him to see humanity in himself and himself in humanity.

A Lithuanian life
Milosz's most public moment came in 1980 when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. At one of the most sensitive points of the Cold War, the Nobel committee boldly chose for its award this Polish-language writer who had dedicated a large part of his career to admonishing political extremes.
During his acceptance speech, Milosz, true to form, framed the potentially apocalyptic geopolitical tensions in the scene of the remote Lithuanian town of his childhood.
"It is good to be born in a small country where nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries," the poet said during his Nobel address. "I have in mind Lithuania - a country of myths and poetry."
Milosz was born in Seteiniai, near the city of Kedainiai, in 1911. His idyllic early childhood was interrupted by World War I, much of which he spent in Russia where his father was dispatched to design bridges and roads as an engineer. When he was old enough to begin his studies in earnest, Milosz moved to Polish-controlled Vilnius, the city he called Wilno. ("Are there many cities whose names people disagree about?" he wrote.)
While Milosz would leave Vilnius in 1940, not to return until after the restoration of Lithuanian independence, the city loomed larger in his mind. Milosz was fascinated by the mix of cultures and traditions that interwar Vilnius brought together and the city's long tradition of peacefully hosting different ethnic groups.
"Milosz's Vilnius was a very different place from today's city. It was a multicultural city where Jews, Russians, Belarusians, Poles, Karaites and Lithuanians all lived together," said Algis Kaleda, one of Lithuania's most prominent literary critics.
Kaleda, who accompanied Milosz on several of his return visits to Vilnius, said the author was fascinated by the changes the city had undergone under Soviet occupation and after independence. "But even on his first visit in 1992, it was obvious that he was coming back as a guest," Kaleda remarked.

Destruction
After living in Warsaw and working for Polish Radio, described as one of the hold-out liberal institutions in a country torn between competing right- and left-wing movements, Milosz found himself in Vilnius in 1940 when the city was annexed by Soviet troops.
He soon decided to stage a daring "escape" across the Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union to return to Hitler's Warsaw.
Creeping under the cover of night through the eerie swamps that mark the border between today's Poland and Lithuania, Milosz wondered at the political events that had torn his beloved Grand Duchy in two. In Warsaw, he spent the ensuing five years witnessing the destruction of the city and the many societies that once flourished in it.
It was during this period that he gained final proof of his life-long suspicion that the atmosphere of political extremism in which he grew up would only end in chaos and atrocity.
With little to do in occupied Warsaw but read and write, Milosz transformed many of his observations and feelings associated with the war into poetry. His 1943 poem "A Poor Christian Girl Looks at the Ghetto" captures the sense of tragedy he witnessed during this period.
After the war, Milosz took a post at communist Poland's Embassy in the United States. While Milosz himself marveled at the absurdity of himself - a free-thinking poet - serving as a bureaucrat for an oppressive regime, he took the job in stride while reveling in the freedom of thought he found in America.
In 1951, Milosz sought exile in France, an event that sparked a new and fruitful period of writing. He published "The Captive Mind," a collection of essays that condemned the Polish intelligentsia for its capitulation with the communist government, in Paris in 1953, and earned the European Literary Prize. He moved to Berkeley, California, in 1961 and became a U.S. citizen while taking up a professorship at the University of California.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Milosz was able to return to his beloved homeland. He died in Krakow, erstwhile capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and traditional center of Polish-Lithuanian culture.

Citizen Milosz
Perhaps understandably for a man who lived in so many countries, Milosz's national identity remained an enigma, even to himself. His name is most readily identified with Poland, where his death was commemorated by nationwide tributes and eulogies from all sectors of society.
"Without a doubt, he was a Polish writer," said Kornelijus Platelis, editor of the cultural weekly Literatura ir Menas (Literature and Art). "But this meant that he wrote in the Polish language. Like so many of his class, his ancestors spoke Lithuanian, and he even spoke some himself."
By the end of his life, Milosz held three passports - one from America and one each from Poland and Lithuania. Yet as much as he valued and respected the Poland-Lithuania of his birth, his writing was often a quest to lever this fact into a broader, universal understanding of human identity that would transcend international conflict.
"Esse," a prose poem Milosz wrote during his Parisian exile, reflects this quest for knowledge of self in the midst of political chaos.
He writes at the climax of the poem, "And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is."
"His writing is rational and thoughtful, devoid of much of the unnecessary emotion that was present in the politics and thinking that polluted his environments. This is much more important than whether he was Lithuanian or Polish. This was his gift," Platelis said.