Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who died Aug. 14 at age 93, was close to Jews and Jewish causes from an early age and some of his most eloquent and disturbing works dealt with the Holocaust, Holocaust memory and the complex relations between Jews and Catholic Poles. Milosz grappled powerfully with the physical and intellectual effects of the brutality, oppression and mass destruction that marked the 20th century in Europe.
Though the Poles themselves did not devise or mastermind the Holocaust, Milosz felt the destruction on Polish soil of 3 million Polish Jews in the Holocaust left his native land “sullied, blood-stained, desecrated.” Poles, he believed, had to recognize this.
One of his most famous poems, “Campo dei Fiori,” written in 1943, described how Poles outside the Warsaw Ghetto were oblivious to the fate of the Jews as the Nazis destroyed the ghetto.
In the poem, he evoked the unforgettable image of a! merry-go-round outside the ghetto walls happily spinning as the ghetto itself went up in flames:
“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’ skirts,
and the happy throngs laughed
on a beautiful Warsaw Sunday.”
This and another Milosz poem about Polish indifference to the destruction of the ghetto sparked one of Poland’s first important public debates on the issue of Holocaust guilt and memory, which was carried out in a series of essays and articles in the late 1980s.
Milosz was born in 1911 in what is now Lithuania. In Vilnius in the 1930s he was part of a literary circle called Zagary, which had close relations with the “Young Vilna” group of Jewish write! rs.
Milosz moved to Warsaw in 1937 after being fired from the radi o station where he worked, for associating with Jews.
After World War II he served as a diplomat for communist Poland, but in 1951 broke with the regime and defected to the West, eventually settling in the United States, where he taught at the University of California at Berkeley.
During his exile, his works, including his most famous book, “The Captive Mind,” made him a powerful symbol of intellectual freedom and anti-Communist dissent. That book, a collection of essays published in 1953, described the pressures exerted on intellectual life by totalitarianism.
Much of Milosz’s work also dealt with the plight of living in exile. He moved back to his native country after the ouster of the communists in 1989.
In his Nobel acceptance speech in 1980, Milosz described how memory of the Holocaust was fading and becoming distorted, and how the complexities and nuances of history were becoming forgotten.
“We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contra! ry to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil,” he said.
Already, he noted, “the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda,” exceeded 100.
“If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable?” he asked. “And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering or poisoning of the natural environment?”
For a poet coming from the “other” — Communist-dominated Europe — he said, “the events embraced by the name of the Holocaust are a reality, so close in time that he cannot hope to liberate himself from their remembrance unless, perhaps, by translating the Psalms of David.”
Still, Milosz said, he felt “anxiety” when “the meaning of the word Holocaust undergoes gradual modifications, so that the word begins to belong to the history of the Jews exclusively, as if among the victims there were not! also millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and prisoners of other n ationalities.
“He feels anxiety, for he senses in this a foreboding of a not-distant future when history will be reduced to what appears on television, while the truth, as it is too complicated, will be buried in the archives, if not totally annihilated.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.