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Personal Remembrances of Czeslaw Milosz

A version of this letter appeared as “Personal Remembrances of Czesław Miłosz,” The Sarmatian Review, vol. XXXI, no. 3 (September 2011): p. 1625

I read with interest the poetic recollection of Miłosz by Professor (Father) Raymond Gawronski (SR, April 2011) and would like to contribute some personal memories that may shed some light on the poet’s personal ways. While my younger sister Anna was an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley as a Comparative Literature major in the late 1980s, she was considered as a possible candidate for an assistantship to Miłosz. The poet invited her to his place and basically had one question: “How did you acquire your last name?” (Skąd Pani ma to nazwisko?). My sister’s answer was: “I acquired it at birth” (Od urodzenia). Miłosz never got back to her, and she never became his assistant.

The future Nobel Prize winner knew our grandfather, Jan Chodakiewicz, a fellow student at the law faculty of the Stefan Batory University (USB) in Wilno and a popular member of the Konwent Polonia fraternity, Poland’s eldest. They met through my grandfather’s one of the best high school friends, Lech Beynar (aka Paweł Jasiennica) – the other one being Mieczysław Potocki (the future Major “Węgielny” of the Wilno AK). Miłosz was also a high school classmate of my grandmother’s oldest brother, Janusz Cieszewski, also a law student at USB. The late Jerzy Przyłuski recalled the cordiality between the two many years later. In fact, Janusz introduced him to “Czesio Miłosz” on Przyłuski’s first day at the USB. Janusz Cieszewski was a hardcore Endek. He was later arrested for his activities but the University refused to cooperate with the government and expel him. Miłosz knew this very well as this was a very public case and he remained close to Janusz. At any rate, while in the United States the poet recoiled from anything that had to do with his personal past.

On the other hand, my personal dealings with Miłosz were invariably positive. While I sat on lectures at UC Berkeley and did my volunteer work at the university’s Amnesty International chapter, I was interested in neither the poet nor his poetry. Since I was barred from dealing with Poland and the USSR, I focused on Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and North Korea. However, whenever we needed something done for Polish prisoners of conscience, my boss, Laola Hironaka, a Catholic nun, a JD and a PhD in Japanese literature (she knew Mishima Yukiyo from Tohai – Tokio Imperial University), would turn to me and say: “Let’s hit Miłosz.” And he would invariably come through, including intervention on behalf of Fighting Solidarity (Solidarność Walcząca), a courageous group in Poland that did not eschew armed self-defense against communism.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Professor of History, The Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies