Biography Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz

photo of Czeslaw Milosz
  • Time Period1911 - 2004
  • PlaceKedainiai
  • CountryLithuania

Poet Biography

Czeslaw Milosz was born on June 30, 1911 in the village of Šeteniai (Kedainiai district, Kaunas County) on the border between two Lithuanian historical regions of Samogitia and Aukštaitija in central Lithuania (then part of Russian empire). He was a son of Aleksander Milosz, a civil engineer, and Weronika, née Kunat. His brother, Andrzej Milosz (1917–2002), a Polish journalist, translator of literature and of film subtitles into Polish, was a documentary-film producer who created some Polish documentaries about his famous brother.

Milosz emphasized his identity with the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a stance that led to ongoing controversies; he refused to categorically identify himself as either a Pole or a Lithuanian. He once said of himself: "I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian." Milosz was fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French.

Milosz memorialized his Lithuanian childhood in a 1981 novel, The Issa Valley, and in the 1959 memoir Native Realm. After graduating from Sigismund Augustus Gymnasium in Vilnius, he studied law at Stefan Batory University and in 1931 he traveled to Paris, where he was influenced by his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, a French poet of Lithuanian descent and a Swedenborgian. His first volume of poetry was published in 1934. After receiving his law degree that year, he again spent a year in Paris on a fellowship. Upon returning, he worked as a commentator at Radio Wilno, but was dismissed for his leftist views. Milosz wrote all his poetry, fiction and essays in Polish and translated the Old Testament Psalms into Polish.

Milosz spent World War II in Warsaw, under Nazi Germany's "General Government," where, among other things, he attended underground lectures by Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy and aesthetics, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz. He did not participate in the Warsaw Uprising due to residing outside Warsaw proper.

After World War II, Milosz served as cultural attaché of the communist People's Republic of Poland in Paris. In 1951 he defected and obtained political asylum in France. In 1953 he received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize).

In 1960 Milosz emigrated to the United States, and in 1970 he became a U.S. citizen. In 1961 he began a professorship in Polish literature in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978 he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He retired that same year, but continued teaching at Berkeley.

In 1980 Milosz received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since his works had been banned in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that many Poles became aware of him.

When the Iron Curtain fell, Milosz was able to return to Poland, at first to visit and later to live part-time in Kraków. He divided his time between his home in Berkeley and an apartment in Kraków.

In 1989 Milosz received the U.S. National Medal of Arts and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.

Through the Cold War, Milosz's name was often invoked in the United States, particularly by conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr., usually in the context of Milosz's 1953 book The Captive Mind. During that period, his name was largely passed over in silence in government-censored media and publications in Poland.

The Captive Mind has been described as one of the finest studies of the behavior of intellectuals under a repressive regime. Milosz observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily those with the strongest minds, but rather those with the weakest stomachs; the mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much.

Memorial to fallen Gdansk shipyard workers, featuring a poem by MiloszMilosz is honored at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust, as one of the "Righteous among the Nations."

A poem by Milosz appears on a Gdansk memorial to protesting shipyard workers who had been killed by government security forces in 1970.

Milosz's books and poems have been translated into English by many hands, including Jane Zielonko (The Captive Mind), Milosz himself, his Berkeley students (in translation seminars conducted by him), and his friends and Berkeley colleagues, Peter Dale Scott, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass.

Milosz died in 2004 at his Kraków home, aged 93. His first wife, Janina, had predeceased him in 1986. His second wife, Carol Thigpen, a U.S.-born historian, died in 2002. He is survived by two sons, Anthony and John Peter.

Milosz's body was entombed at Kraków's historic Skalka Church, one of the last to be commemorated there.