WHO IS WHO: Czeslaw Milosz

Views on BG | August 14, 2004, Saturday // 00:00| Views: | Comments: 0
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Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 in what was then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of Russia. His family was of the Polish-speaking gentry, a class that was politically and economically ruined by the time of Milosz's birth. Milosz's father was a highway engineer for the tsar's army from 1914 to 1918 and the family travelled throughout Russia when Milosz was a child. The chaos of his early wanderings through war-torn Russia, countered by the peace he remembers in the pastoral setting of a Lithuanian river valley, would later become a frequent subject of his poetry and prose.

Milosz was a student in the 1920s in Wilno (by then in Poland; today, Vilnius, capital of Lithuania). He began publishing poetry in the 1930s. In 1939, during the first days of the Second World War, he was sent to the front as a radio operator. In January 1940 he returned to Wilno and was caught there when Soviet tanks entered the city. In July he escaped across Soviet lines into Poland, a dangerous journey through both Soviet- and Nazi-occupied territories. This was the last time for over forty years that he would see his native Lithuania.

Milosz spent the years 1940-44 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. He continued to write, editing a volume of anti-Nazi poetry. After the failure of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, he and his wife escaped to Krakow. Later that year, he published his first postwar collection, Rescue. Milosz became a diplomatic attachй‚ for the new government of the People's Republic of Poland. From 1946 to 1950 he worked in New York and Washington.

However, the Polish leadership was becoming less indulgent of his public ambivalence toward Communism. In December 1950 he returned, on a holiday, to Warsaw, where the Polish authorities took away his passport, effectively imprisoning him in Communist Poland. In January 1951, however, Milosz was allowed to return to work in Paris, where on 1 February he sought political asylum, thus beginning his official life in exile.

In 1953 Milosz wrote The Captive Mind, perhaps his most famous work in the West. In the book's introduction, he describes its subject as ‘the vulnerability of the twentieth-century mind to seduction by ideological doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future'.

In 1960 Milosz began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. He became a full professor there in 1961, and for the next twenty years combined his writing with teaching courses. In 1980 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In June of 1981, Milosz returned to Poland for the first time since his exile in 1951. Soon after his return, the Polish presses began to publish the first volumes of Milosz's work available in Poland since his writings were banned in the 1950s.
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