Czesław Miłosz Defected His Way to Winning a Nobel Prize

After the Nobel Academy announced poet Czesław Miłosz as the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, the University of California, Berkeley, where Miłosz taught, organized a press conference. 

Miłosz read his poem, “A Magic Mountain,” and, in answer to being asked how the award would change his life, said, “I would like to hold my class today.”

Czesław Miłosz
Czesław Miłosz

But between the press conference and teaching his class, Miłosz headed to his department’s offices.

Upon entering, Miłosz’s colleagues burst into a rendition of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” And another professor ribbed Miłosz. They’d received a call from Stockholm, the colleague joked. “A mistake has been made,” they said.

“I could survive,” Miłosz replied.

From obscurity to the limelight

The Nobel Academy hadn’t made an error. But when first hearing the news, some people thought they had because Miłosz’s work wasn’t well known. 

Miłosz was born in Poland and came to the U.S. in 1960. At the time Miłosz won the Nobel, his only book to generate much attention in the West was an essay collection called The Captive Mind (Amazon | Bookshop).

The book came out in 1953, two years after Miłosz defected from Communist Poland to the West. Living in exile in Paris, Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind to explain his decision to defect. In it, Miłosz argues that artists can’t thrive under the Communist regime.

The Captive Mind was out of print by the time Miłosz won the Nobel. And Poland banned his books. In the U.S., his collections sold at most a few thousand copies. Looking back on the pre-Nobel period of his life, Miłosz said in 1991, “I considered myself a distinguished poet, satisfied with a dozen or so readers.”

I considered myself a distinguished poet, satisfied with a dozen or so readers.”

Czesław Miłosz

But a Nobel Prize has a way of making its recipients famous, as it did Miłosz. After winning the award, Miłosz’s publisher, Continuum Books, rushed out additional copies of his books. Meanwhile, in Poland, the government relented and published an authorized edition of Miłosz’s poems, which flew off bookshelves.

The Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 in Gdańsk, Poland.
The Monument to the fallen Shipyard Workers 1970 in Gdańsk, Poland.

And in 1981, Miłosz returned to Poland after being gone for 30 years. He accepted an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Lublin. Miłosz also visited the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers in Gdańsk.

Erected in 1980, the memorial honors victims of street riots protesting the Communist regime. The 139-ton structure depicts three people: Pope John Paul II, future Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa, and Miłosz. 

The sculpture also includes an inscription from Psalm 129 and lines from Miłosz’s poem, “You Who Wronged:”

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.

Czesław Miłosz comes home

Miłosz’s homecoming was emotional for the Nobel winner. Not only was he returning to his home, but he saw the poverty and deprivation created by a brutal, corrupt government. It’s a fate Miłosz avoided through luck and determination.

In 1951, Miłosz was a cultural attaché for the Communist Polish government in Washington, D.C. But he was ordered to Paris, where authorities confiscated his passport. They then sent him to Warsaw. Polish officials believed Miłosz was becoming too Westernized and shouldn’t be trusted.  

Raising authorities’ suspicions was that Miłosz returned to Europe without his wife and child, who stayed in the U.S. Plus, Miłosz had never joined the Communist Party.

Stuck in Warsaw, Miłosz didn’t know if he’d ever leave Poland or see his family again. But he had a friend whose husband was the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs. She asked her husband to intercede on the poet’s behalf, which the man did, asking Polish President Bolesław Bierut to let Miłosz leave the country. 

Beirut agreed, and Miłosz arrived in Paris on Jan. 15, 1951. Seventeen days later, the poet left the Polish embassy and headed to a publishing house’s offices. He hid there for three and a half months, then emerged to begin a new life in the West.

Miłosz stayed in Paris until he accepted a teaching job at Berkeley in 1960. He became a U.S. citizen in 1970. Miłosz was the 9th American and 10th person from Poland to win a Nobel Prize.

By the time he won the award, Miłosz had lived through World War II, the Nazi occupation of Poland, and a Communist dictatorship.

So when his Berkeley colleague joked that the Nobel Academy had erred in giving him the Prize, Miłosz was able to say, “I could survive.”

Czesław Miłosz

  • Born on June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania.
  • Died on Aug. 14, 2004, in Krakow, Poland.

Books by Czesław Miłosz

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