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Poems by Czesław Miłosz, 1945

This collection of poems, written during the Nazi occupation in the shadow of the Warsaw Ghetto and published in Polish as Ocalenie (1945; "Salvation"), marks the transition of Nobel Prize-winner Czesław Miłosz from the "catastrophism" of the 1930s when he was a key member of the "second avant-garde" to a mature expression of his sense of history and humanity and a profound understanding of his role as poet and his place in the traditions of world and Polish literature. A small number of the poems contained in this collection directly address the matter of the Holocaust, most notably "Campo dei Fiori" and "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto." Miłosz's project in this collection is strikingly expansive: he seeks to place and define himself, his art, and his time in the context of the natural world, the movement of history and the development of humanity, and of eternal philosophical and spiritual values. In "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" he does not describe the ghetto, as one might expect from the almost banal title of this short poem written in 1943. Instead, he focuses on images from the natural world that are grotesque and concrete by turns and intersperses references to products of human civilization. He builds up an image of destruction of human reality on a background of mindless biological decay in the natural order; the picture is chillingly horrifying and disturbing in its despair and bleakness. A leader is identified, and it is a mole who, though obviously blind, wears a small red lamp like a miner as it works its way indifferently through the clammy underground world of decomposing humanity. He refers to this creature as a "Patri-arch," one who has read "the great book of the species," and implies that, like Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, he is profoundly and frighteningly mistaken in his view of the ends of human existence. But most of all Miłosz is concerned with his own, and hence everyone's, connection with the destruction he sees everywhere. His lyrical subject refers to himself as "a Jew of the New Testament" and fears he will be counted "among the helpers of death." He does not condemn the point to which Western civilization has arrived, but he identifies a crisis in which its greatest values have, at least temporarily, lost ground or have been overcome by forces external and inimical to them.

In "Campo dei Fiori" Miłosz connects the execution of Giordano Bruno during the Inquisition with the extermination campaign being carried out in the Warsaw Ghetto. In particular he addresses the indifference of the bystanders and their failure to recognize and empathize with the suffering of the individuals, whether the solitary Bruno or the individuals making up the group singled out for destruction in the ghetto. His choice of Bruno as a point of departure is hardly facile, for Bruno had been persecuted not only by the nefarious Catholic Inquisition but by Calvinists as well. His teachings were not dangerous, but his independence of mind marginalized him and situated him outside the masses, which were subject to control by the dark forces of the misguided religious hierarchy. In Miłosz's poem he suffers the agony of the executioner's flames utterly alone, while the citizens of Florence go about their casual quotidian affairs. In Warsaw people are shown enjoying the pleasures of a carousel while thousands are being hounded and rounded up for extermination just on the other side of the wall.

In "The Poor Poet," written in 1944, we can see how these experiences reshaped Miłosz's poetic and philosophical sensibilities. He speaks of himself as transformed and plotting his revenge, as he reflects with valiant optimism about the future. Despite the horrors he has witnessed and his profound doubts about what may yet come, he sees an important role for the poet: "To me is given the hope of revenge on others and on myself,/For I was he who knew/and took from it no profit for myself."

Miłosz has occasionally been referred to as a "poet of the Holocaust." While the dearth of references to the Holocaust in his writing over the next five decades makes the suitability of that epithet rather unlikely, the poetry he wrote during and immediately after the war clearly demonstrates that his experience of the Holocaust was crucial in his transformation into the remarkable poet he became from that point on.

—Allan Reid