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8/18/04 - TRIBUTE TO CZESLAW MILOSZ - 2004-08-19

Czeslaw Milosz, an intellectual and moral giant of the 20th century, has died at the age of ninety-three in his homeland, Poland. Mr. Milosz’s writing included searing criticism of Communism as well as beautiful poetry. It inspired members of the Solidarity trade union movement who helped bring down the Soviet-imposed regime in Poland, sparking the peaceful overthrow of Communism throughout eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

“He inspired, encouraged, and strengthened us,” said Lech Walesa, Solidarity leader and former president of Poland. “He belonged to the generation of princes, great personalities.”

Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 to a Polish-speaking family in Lithuania, which, along with Poland, Latvia, and Estonia, was then part of the Russian empire. He studied classical languages and law at the University of Vilnius and won a scholarship to study literature in Paris. When Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union started the Second World War by invading Poland in 1939, Mr. Milosz was working for Polish Radio in Warsaw. During the Nazi occupation, he worked in the Warsaw University library and wrote for the anti-Nazi underground. One of his best-known poems of that time, “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” told of the horrors of the Nazi persecution of Polish Jews.

After the Second World War, Czeslaw Milosz joined the Polish diplomatic service. But his profound disagreement with Communism led to his defection in Paris in 1951. Two years later, he published “The Captive Mind,” which tells how Communism destroys the independence of the intelligentsia. In 1960, Mr. Milosz became a professor of literature at the University of California at Berkeley in the U.S. In addition to teaching and writing, he translated into Polish parts of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as well as English and French literature. In 1980, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

After the overthrow of Communist rule in 1989, Czeslaw Milosz returned to Poland to a hero’s welcome. Lines from one of his poems are engraved on a memorial in Gdansk to honor workers shot by police in the early 1970s. They read: “You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure; for a poet remembers.”