In 2011, on the centenary of the birth of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and seven years after his death, a conference about his life and work took place in Sejny, a small town on the Polish-Lithuanian border. Because I had just written his biography, I was invited to discuss “Native Realm,” an autobiographical work, written over half a century before.
The book relates his own life experiences, yet at the same time stands as a biography of an intellectual from the eastern — or, as we Poles prefer to put it to differentiate ourselves from Russia, the central — part of the continent. In that book and elsewhere, Milosz wrote powerfully about totalitarianism, anti-Semitism and nationalism, the topics that occupied European intellectuals for much of the 20th century.
I declared to the audience that in my view many of the author’s political diagnoses were outdated. After all, I thought, most of my students view themselves primarily as citizens of Europe, as countless young people do throughout the European Union. They speak foreign languages, travel and work abroad to get a feel for the world, and generally do not feel under threat. The issues that outraged Milosz were things of the past.
It turns out, however, I was deeply mistaken.
Someone once said that in his life Milosz had encountered every kind of hell the 20th century could devise, yet also had at times tasted paradise. And, like Dante, he captured both for us.
As a boy, he witnessed the demise of the 19th century, which took place on the battlefields of World War I. For a while he lived in Wilno — then part of Poland, now Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius — and increasingly became aware of what was happening nearby, just beyond Poland’s eastern border, where the empire of the czars morphed bloodily into the Soviet Union.