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The Doubter and the Saint

At a fateful moment, Czeslaw Miłosz crossed paths with a controversial Polish priest, later martyred in World War II. The little-known encounter and its aftermath illuminate the Nobel laureate’s life and work.

by Cynthia Haven


Thousands lined the streets of Kraków to watch the funeral procession of poet Czesław Miłosz, who died in 2004 at the age of 93. The solemn event had very nearly been a rout.

Days earlier, ultra-nationalist Catholics had threatened to disrupt the ceremonies with demonstrations. They felt the Nobel laureate was neither Polish enough nor Catholic enough for state honors, and further reviled him as a communist sympathizer because of his stint as a diplomat during the Stalin era, before his 1951 defection to the West. Their threats to lie in the streets in the form of a cross had been preempted only by a personal message from the pope.

Miłosz would have been amused. He once wrote that “a man’s unavoidable contradictions are his purgatory.” He embodied several intriguing dualities: An ethnic Pole born and raised in Lithuania, Miłosz was a Polish Catholic who attended mass but decried Poland’s fervent and often nationalistic Catholicism, a Gnostic who greedily seized on life’s pleasures instead of renouncing them, a sensual Manichean, a doubter who once said “all my intellectual impulses are religious,” an exile not leftist enough for postwar Paris but too leftist for Cold War America.

An odd coincidence, barely noted in the Polish press, linked Miłosz in death with a man whose path had crossed his before World War II—a man with glaring contradictions of his own, though he officially bypassed purgatory for paradise. The day that Miłosz died, August 14, is a holiday honoring the popular but controversial Polish saint Maximilian Kolbe. The Franciscan priest, widely accused of anti-Semitism, nevertheless died in Auschwitz. Before his arrest, his monastery had sheltered several thousand Jews. The little-known connection between the two men helps illuminate one small but fascinating aspect of the life and work—the complexities and contradictions—of Miłosz, whom the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel laureate himself, called “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”

Born in 1911 in Lithuania, then part of the Russian empire, Miłosz was a member of the Polish-speaking gentry, the son of a civil engineer. As a young man he cofounded a literary group, Żagary, nicknamed “The Catastrophists” for their bleak view of the future and prescient sense of approaching disaster. He took a law degree in 1934, and in 1936, at the age of 25, went to work for Polish National Radio’s regional station in Vilnius as a literary programmer, his first real job.

Miłosz’s leftist views soon got him into trouble. In his autobiography, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, published in Polish in 1959, he describes the “whisper campaign” mounted against him by right-wingers, culminating in an editorial denouncing him in the enormously popular Polish newspaper Mały Dziennik (The Little Daily). “[It] declared to the whole country that a Communist cell was operating within the Wilno [Vilnius] radio station, and that this cell was responsible for a Jew being entrusted with the religious programs. . . .”

The Little Daily and another newspaper, Rycerz Niepokalane (The Knight of the Immaculata), were the publications of a religious community founded by the influential Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe’s brand of nationalistic religion represented everything Miłosz loathed about the politically powerful state church, which conflated Catholicism and Polish patriotism, leavening both with xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Kolbe’s defenders note that he had little control over the general editorial policy of his newspapers. He was traveling back and forth from his monastery outside Warsaw to Nagasaki, Japan, where he had established a mission, and he was in ill health besides. But there was no denying his newspapers’ anti-Semitism. He had, though, urged his editor in a memo to exhibit greater charity towards Jews: “Speaking of the Jews, I would devote great attention not to stir up accidentally nor to intensify to a greater degree the hatred of our readers against them.” Still, one of the references to Jews he made in the 1930s included mention of a “Jewish-Masonic conspiracy” and a “cruel clique of Jews.”

Miłosz was sacked in 1937, but hardly desolate. He recalls having had mixed feelings about his job anyway, describing it as provincial, bureaucratic, and suffocating: “I swore vengeance against the nationalists, but I was basking in the sudden change of my routine,” he writes in Native Realm. “Once more I was master of my own time, I could lounge in bed until late, read, write, and I had the unknown before me—they had done me a good turn.” He headed south for a Venetian spring, then went to work for Polish National Radio in Warsaw. In 1944 he would marry a woman he met there, Janina Dłuska, another happy consequence of getting fired in Vilnius.

The Warsaw radio job ended with the 1939 Nazi occupation. During the early months of the war, Miłosz crossed the borders several times between Soviet-occupied Lithuania and Nazi-occupied Poland before deciding to cast his lot with Poland, predicting, correctly, that the Nazi regime was likely to end before the Soviet occupation did. He spent the rest of the war as a janitor in the Warsaw University library, reading copiously and publishing poems in the underground press—a courageous act, considering the penalties if he had been caught.

But Miłosz hardly considered himself a hero. Brodsky wrote of Miłosz’s wartime experiences, “Out of these ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor.” Guilt haunts his 1943 poem “Campo dei Fiori,” which describes a carnival ride outside the burning Jewish Ghetto, destroyed after its inhabitants mounted an armed rebellion. In it, the poet is a bystander, a helpless, frightened, accidental witness to terrible events.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Later, in Conversations with Czesław Miłosz, the poet called it an “immoral” and dishonest poem, “because it was written from the point of view of an observer about people who were dying.” It was too easy, he seemed to be saying: the poet observes an atrocity, writes a poem in protest, and is pleased at having written a beautiful poem; conscience slackens. Nonetheless, such witnessing was necessary in a time when so many were silent or voiceless; during the years of the Warsaw Ghetto, from 1941 to 1943, about 400,000 Jews perished from disease, random executions, and deportation to death camps. “To write of the tragedy of the Warsaw ghetto, to which I was an eyewitness, is hard for me,” Miłosz writes in The Captive Mind, his landmark critique of totalitarianism, published in 1953. “The vision of the burning ghetto is too welded into all I lived through in my adult years for me to speak of it quietly.”

The carousel in “Campo dei Fiori” has become famous as a metaphor for human indifference. But an image from another poem of the same period, “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” may capture a deeper psychological truth. Fear of judgment and damnation permeates the poem, which moves underground to the image of a “guardian mole” who “distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor.”
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.
Again, the poet is looking rather than acting. “To live with one’s cowardice is bitter,” Miłosz writes in Native Realm. “There would be no point today in trying to convince myself or others that I had any sort of talent for heroism. I admit it openly: I turned cold with fear even at home if I happened to meet our apartment manager’s eyes with their veiled threat, know that he suspected one of our guests was a Jew.”

A year after the destruction of the city’s Jewry, the Poles made a valiant but doomed attempt to free the city in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. In retaliation, the Germans bombed or burned the ancient capital, block by block, and murdered its citizenry while the Soviet army, watching on the other side of the Vistula, waited for the spoils. Miłosz was caught on the outskirts of the city, where the streets were under artillery fire. Hitler’s soldiers detained him in an ad hoc transit camp when he tried to return to his demolished home. He was rescued that night by a “majestic,” “authoritative” nun who insisted to the German authorities that she was his aunt. He never learned her name. Over 63 days, 18,000 Polish soldiers and as many as 200,000 civilians died. By the end of World War II, 85 percent of the elegant baroque city was destroyed.

Much of Miłosz’s poetry was written—during the war, and after—expressly for “you whom I could not save,” the war victims he addresses in the 1945 poem “Dedication”:
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.

That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
In Polish, the “You”—the very first word of the poem—is singular, not plural, a distinction lost in English. The singular “you” means that Miłosz is addressing a particular person, not speaking rhetorically to a crowd. He is speaking to someone frustratingly beyond the reach of his words, about whom he feels guilt for not saving: “I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words. / I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree”—a lie, of course, because this poem is written in words. They, in fact, are his millet seeds to propitiate the dead:
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
Where was the saint-to-be during the war? Whatever his newspapers might have said, when the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, Maximilian Kolbe sheltered as many as 2,000 Jews in his monastery outside Warsaw. Kolbe would probably have agreed with the poet’s conclusions about man’s unavoidable contradictions. In the final issue of The Knight of the Immaculata, in December 1940—the Nazis had allowed him to keep publishing in hopes that he would incriminate himself—Kolbe wrote: “The real conflict is inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the catacombs of concentration camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

Arrested by the Gestapo the following February on charges of subversive activities, Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz. When a prisoner from his barracks vanished, the camp commander ordered that ten men would be starved to death as a warning against future escape attempts. (The missing man was later found drowned in the latrine.) Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of the men, a sergeant in the Polish army.
“I am old. . . .” said Kolbe, who was 47. “He has a wife and children.” In an airless underground bunker, he led the dying men in songs and prayer. After two weeks, only Kolbe and three others were left alive. Kolbe offered his arm to the executioner, and was killed with a shot of carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. The man whom he replaced lived to tell of Kolbe’s sacrifice. (So did a number of other prisoners who remembered his offer, and one of the guards from his last days.)

Miłosz emerged from the war and the Soviet occupation of Poland tormented with spiritual doubt. “I should confess that I do not understand the notion of Providence and am very much on the side of Simone Weil who preferred to leave as much as possible to necessity ruling the world,” he wrote to his friend Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, in May 1959.

Miłosz was haunted, and would remain so. In The Captive Mind, he writes that whenever he is “drunk with the beauty of being alive amidst living human beings,” one image obstinately returns to him:
I see before my eyes always the same young Jewish girl. She was probably about twenty years old. Her body was full, splendid, exultant. She was running down the street, her hands raised, her chest thrust forward. She cried piercingly, “No! No! No!” The necessity to die was beyond her comprehension—a necessity that came from outside, having nothing in common with her unprepared body. The bullets of the SS guards’ automatic pistols reached her in her cry.
After the war, Miłosz served in the communist regime as a cultural attaché in New York, Washington, D.C., and Paris. He never joined the party, however, so the authorities always viewed him with suspicion. When his passport was confiscated during a visit to Warsaw, he knew his days were numbered. After maneuvering its return, he resumed his Paris position and defected within weeks.

Miłosz was befriended by neither the right nor the left. The United States mistrusted him for his erstwhile communist affiliations, even after he wrote Captive Mind. European leftists felt he had betrayed the promise of a glorious future. Pablo Neruda upbraided him in an essay called “The Man Who Ran Away.”

The years of Parisian isolation ended in 1960, when he joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. A different kind of alienation ensued: His poetry was unknown and untranslated in the West, and banned in his homeland. He was famous, if at all, as a political commentator, the author of Captive Mind—and a campus curmudgeon, the relic of a bygone era. “Once a crowd of students was barricading a path,” he recounted to Polish journalist Adam Michnik, “and I went up to them and said in my best Slav accent, ‘Be gone, you spoiled children of the bourgeoisie.’ They were completely taken aback.”

Did Miłosz ever think of Kolbe? An incident related by the California poet Morton Marcus, in his memoir Striking Through the Masks, suggests that he did. He writes that at a 1970 reception that Miłosz hosted for the visiting Serbian poet Vasko Popa, the poet encountered several Berkeley students, wearing white armbands, en route to a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. After some belligerent inquiries from a slightly drunken Miłosz, the students made the mistake of saying that they were protesting for peace and love.
“Love, love, love!” mocked Miłosz, his voice rising to a shout. “Talk to me about love when they come into your cell one morning, line you all up, and say ‘You and you, step forward. It’s your time to die—unless any of your friends loves you so much he wants to take your place!’”
Not long after this outburst, Miłosz received a telephone call from a Polish priest in Paris, Zenon Modzelewski, who was preparing a tribute for Kolbe’s 1971 beatification. The priest wanted permission to excerpt some psalms Miłosz had translated. “No, I won’t allow it,” Miłosz roared. “It was Kolbe’s fault that I lost the job with the radio.” Why was he so touchy, almost 35 years after his firing? Miłosz relented and granted permission. He turned his angry reaction into a joke, according to a 2004 article written by Father Adam Boniecki, the well-known editor of the Polish journal Tygodnik Powszechny. In the article, Miłosz again decried Catholic nationalism of the kind Kolbe represented. “A collective body, a human society, cannot be the Saviour,” he had written in an earlier letter to Merton. “A dream about collective purity achieved thanks to collective suffering is just a dream and in practice it leads to bestiality.”

Winning the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature thrust Miłosz, an obscure poet writing in “an unheard-of tongue,” into the international spotlight. Two years later, Kolbe was canonized as a “martyr of charity” by Miłosz’s friend and fellow Pole, John Paul II.

In Year of the Hunter, his published diary from 1987 to 1988, Miłosz declared himself for “the Catholicism of leftist philosopher Jacques Maritain as opposed to the hideous Catholicism of The Knight of the Immaculate Virgin, The Little Daily, and the other publications devoted to vilifying Jews and Freemasons. I was kicked out of Polish Radio in Wilno because of a denunciation in The Little Daily.” Apparently the firing still rankled—but Miłosz finally strove to be fair. “Not long ago, someone in America asked me about Father Kolbe’s responsibility. I answered honestly, I hope, and without concealing his views, but also without making him responsible for everything that appeared in his paper.”

Despite his “hideous Catholicism,” Kolbe was able to cross a line that Miłosz could not. Kolbe became more than a bystander, a witness to atrocities. Had Miłosz played the hero, of course, he would have been among the millions annihilated, his early work a little-read chapter in the obscure annals of Polish poetry. Had he played the hero, we wouldn’t have the astonishing miracle of poems, essays, novels, journals, and translations that poured out from this spiritually troubled man. His anguish and ambivalence allowed him to speak for generations that have been paralyzed and helpless before a century of holocausts—from the killing fields of Cambodia to the slaughter in Darfur. A century in which reason and experience argue with faith has been brought into focus by the conscience of a man who humbly experienced himself as a moral and spiritual washout—even as the West hailed him as a moral giant.

To focus on Miłosz’s guilt and anguish is to overlook another recurring theme in his work—his quest for a searing, altruistic love, of the sort that Kolbe came to embody when he was named a “martyr of charity.” His spiritual hunger for “the love that moves the sun and other stars” (Danté, Canto XXXIII, Paradiso) is evident in his deliberate choice of “You” as the first word in the poem “Dedication,” and in the final words of his autobiography, Native Realm: “when ambition counsels us to lift ourselves above simple moral rules guarded by the poor in spirit, rather than to choose them as our compass needle amid the uncertainties of change, we stifle the only thing that can redeem our follies and mistakes: love.” Perhaps his ire toward Kolbe was simply a wish to be a hero of the inner battles of which they both wrote.

From Miłosz’s 1985 poem “A Confession”:
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they saw
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
By 1997, a quarter-century after the Modzelewski incident, Miłosz seems to have mellowed in his view of Kolbe. “I am old now,” Miłosz wrote in a Polish article, “and should soften up. I must remember that humans are only human, and what they have inside their heads does not necessarily translate into actions. St. Maximilian Kolbe and his publishing house represent the resurrection of the Saxon-era superstitions in a contemporary packaging, yet he became a saint.”

By the time of his death, on the day consecrated to St. Maximilian Kolbe, Miłosz seems to have made a kind of peace with “unavoidable contradictions.” He became reconciled to serving humanity through offering poetry of witness rather than through martyrdom. In a short prose piece, “Awakened,” from one of his final collections, he writes,
In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. . . . As if a voice were repeating: “You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” . . . The happiness on this side was like an announcement of the other side. I realized that this was an undeserved gift and I could not grasp by what grace it was bestowed on me.
Originally Published: November 20, 2008

COMMENTS (4)

On December 2, 2008 at 2:58am monica pope wrote:
Despite his flaws of nationalism and anti-Semitism, I'm long to the love of St. Maximilian Kolbe though somewhat newer to the love of Milosz's poetry. This piece by Cynthia Haven illuminates for me a previously unknown convergence of these two men.

What comes to mind is this parable: "Jesus said, 'What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.' He said in reply, 'I will not,' but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, 'Yes, sir,' but did not go.

Which of the two did his father's will?' They answered, 'The first.' Jesus said to them, 'Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.'"(Matt 21)

Prostitutes, tax collectors and perhaps anti-Semites of "hideous Catholicism," too. Such a man doesn't play at heroism, instead he reforms his actions to pure charity-- and he does so in all earnestness. But if any man should be redeemed by his participation in a "tournament of hunchbacks", surely it was Czeslaw Milosz.

On December 9, 2008 at 1:16pm Jane wrote:
Milosz's had survivors guilt, anger at himself for not becoming a martyr while someone he ideologically opposed gave his life.

Regarding- As if a voice were repeating: “You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” .

I do not believe poetry is a gift equal to self-sacrifice, but apparently God works in mysterious ways.

On December 9, 2008 at 9:19pm Don Hagelberg wrote:
I remember Milosz giving his first public lecture at the University of California, Berkeley. It was on the early Pasternak as the Dylan Thomas of Russia. He felt good and after the presentation, felt better.

Later in time I would call his house to ask for whom he would support in the 1972 election. His first wife told me: Humphrey. I was working for McGovern and so I ended the conversation by asking her to please give him the support to continue writing poetry.

When I got off of the phone, I said, "I have just talked to the house of a Nobel Prize winner."

That is the only time at which I have said something so outrageous. It took eight years for my wish to blossom.

Between the lecture in 1959 and the phone call in 1972 I had been imprisoned for refusing induction into the army. In prison I was useful to other prisoners. Today I try to give kindnesses, unknown.

Milosz and the rest? Thank you for your kindnesses!

On December 16, 2008 at 4:31pm Beverly Seitrich wrote:
I found this link to the Poetry Foundation site today in a Funeral Guest Book in our paper, for a young girl who took her own life over great sorrow -she could not block out of her mind something that may be gone tomorrow but she didnt wait for a new day.

In contrast - how strong other generations were when faced with horror of the Holocaust- or imprisonment- how brave they were. They were willing to wait for a new day.

Or Kolbe-- laying down his life for a friend. Jesus said "no other thing is greater than laying down your life for a friend".

I am so glad I read this story - it will prompt me to live for others, not myself.

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Biography

Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2007 she received a Milena Jesenská Journalism fellowship with Vienna's Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Haven is the author of Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006) and Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz (2011).

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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