In Search of a Homeland

In Search of a Homeland - Czesław Miłosz in conversation with Krzysztof Czyżewski.

Krzysztof Czyżewski: Your search of a homeland stands for a journey that continues, leaving its subsequent stages behind. So there was Native Realm and an attempt to find the traveller from the distant provinces in the pan-European context. Then, America and the effort – as you wrote in A View of San Francisco Bay – to satisfy the need of every poet to develop roots in the place of the current residence. Then came The Land of Ulro and exploration of a new spiritual land. Finally, the narrowing of the perspective turning towards the small corner of Europe, the native hearth that is “organically embedded in the past, always the small, warming heart, close as your own body”. The impulse for that turn came much earlier with the discussions with Vicenz at La Combe, then there was Issa Valley..  Your last book In Search of a Homeland provides still another testimony to the fact that the path in search of a homeland leads deeper and deeper towards the places of your childhood, towards the family traditions. Is your perception of the evolution of your journey similar?

Czesław Miłosz: Yes. You can interpret it that way.

K.C.: Under which entry should we look up your homeland on the map of your “small homeland”? Lauda?

C.M.: It is difficult to say it was Lauda because it used to be a manor on the Niewiaża, the Syrućs’ estate, also nearby, but Lauda proper somehow never featured in my consciousness. I cannot say I come from Lauda. Lauda is a little bit to the north. In the old proportions every five or ten kilometres away counted as a different land. No longer today, but that is what it used to be.

As for my own homeland, I’d rather ask questions then give answers. I must say I felt very moved and at home while in Świętobrość. I still keep the memories of the May mass in the Świętobrość church. The hill in Świętobrość has really got something sacred about it.

K.C.: The place we are talking about is situated in the part of Europe that today again struggles to recover its identity. One identity – concerning the existence of Central Europe and its difference Milan Kundera started in the eighties. You also took part in it.

C.M.: I would dare say even, I must boast about myself, I wrote about it even more often than Kundera. I wrote then for “Cross Currents”, the magazine published in English, I think still is, by a Czech, Ladislav Matejka and Michigan University, and is dedicated to the cultures and literatures of Central Europe. Central Europe, in this sense, was professor Matejka’s invention. He conceived the magazine from scratch as a publication dedicated to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. So, he conceived a certain model. He published there his essays much earlier than Kundera spoke in public. Of course, Kundera is very well known in Western Europe, also in today’s America, and the publicity that this idea gained is mostly due to him. My fame is of a completely different type, i.e. it is limited mostly to the American academic circles. In Western Europe, I was “discredited” for a long time as an abominable anti-Stalinist.

K.C.: All the same, you took part, together with Conrad, Havel and Venclova, in the eighties debates on Central Europe and the complex of ties it is connected by. You were talking then about an idea that, in fact, was a utopia existing only in the minds of intellectuals.

C.M.: Yes. Barbara Toruńczyk wrote about this concept as a utopia.

K.C.: Utopian was also Masaryk’s idea, a pre-war concept, the idea of the union of the free nations of Central Europe. Today, the situation is changing, at least one element of the idea comes true: the nations of this part of Europe begin to self-determine their existence.

C.M.: It was in this utopian phase that I wrote about the borders of Central Europe delimited by architecture. I mean, wherever there were Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque there was Central Europe, too. In this sense, Wilno is, of course, a Central European city, all these elements are there. Similarly, Dubrovnik. Of course, the affiliation of Tallinn or Riga is based on a slightly different basis, that of the Germanic Gothic. The Hanseatic tradition. You cannot determine where Central Europe ends. In the north east, at any rate, it would be the boundary of the Jesuit Baroque.

In our debates, we also dealt with the differences between the Habsburg empire in the south and the Tsarist one in the north, as well as the former Commonwealth whose area was partly overtaken by the Russian empire and partly by the Habsburgs. These old traditions survived in some way and still exist. It is undoubtedly one of the causes of friction between the countries of Central Europe today, there are countries where the Habsburgian heritage is strong and they feel greater affinity between each other.

K.C.: How do you perceive the problems of the Central and Eastern Europe, taking mainly the perspective of what happened in 1989?

C.M.: I would like to contribute to the neighbourly relations between the countries of this part of Europe: between Poland and the Czech Republic and Slovakia, between Poland and Ukraine, Poland and Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.. As I mentioned that in In Search of a Homeland, it became for me, in my old age, my civil service .

K.C.: One of the often raised arguments concerning the question of the Central European identity was the claim that this part of Europe will never  be able to manage their own problems, and that the countries need the seal of a foreign empire, Russian or German to calm the ethnic, national and religious conflicts.

C.M.: This really used to be the province of Vienna, Berlin, Moscow or Petersburg. To what extent can these nations live together without killing each other? It is a great unknown. It makes me anxious because there are such voices, e.g.  inimical to Lithuania in Poland, reviving old wounds.

I am a member of the Serbian Academy, and when I took a stance, obvious as it can be, against the Serbian invasion on Croatia, I received a long list enumerating all the wrongs the Serbs have ever suffered from the Croats during the last fifty years. That’s what I am afraid of – the revival of mutual grievances, of what happened fifty years ago. With the historical memory, so characteristic to our nations, fifty years is just a breeze, and five hundred is just a piece of cake, isn’t it?

K.C.: And the historical memory shows a tendency for being passed on to younger generations with all the baggage of complexes and traumas inherited from the ancestors.

C.M.: Yes, completely unverified, passing into a legend. Hence the great difficulties in Polish-Jewish relations, especially in America,  because it is the young generation, say, the third one, inheriting these numerous images, clichés, abridged negative notions.

K.C.: Is there a chance to establish here a Europe of homelands, in the sense used by Vincez in his writings?

C.M.: A very difficult task, because, as you know, this part of Europe has got this tradition of nation-states. Historically, there was no concept in the past that would equal existence of one’s nation with the necessity of owning a state. A nation-state will tend to encompass the territory that would overlap the ethnic boundaries. That’s the origin of what is going on in Yugoslavia. Eventually, assembling all the Serbian lands under one state is nothing else but the realization, cruel and absurd, of the idea of the nation-state. So, such tendencies do exist. Hence the problem of the so called minorities dividing Poland and Lithuania. The problem is poisoned from the start and in advance.

K.C.: Both, your last book and your visit to Lithuania were a step towards Polish-Lithuanian reconciliation, an attempt to improve the relations between Poland and Lithuania. Where do you see the basic errors we commit today that create tension in the relations between Poles and Lithuanians?

C.M.: You see, reconciliation at a higher, intellectual level is very easy. The lower we get the more difficult it becomes. It is because at the lower level we meet stereotypes, the inherited stereotypes. I was told only fifteen per cent of the Polish-speaking population of Lithuania knows Lithuanian. And that there is resistance to learn the language, after all, the official language. Poles would send their children to a Russian school although they could to a Polish one. The power of the Soviet Union was tempting and there always has been this tendency to jump over the heads of the Lithuanians: "Do the Lithuanians matter? Really?" I don’t know whether you know that during the war, in Wilno, there was this saying popular about those who learn languages: “optimists learn English, pessimists learn German, realists learn Russian and morons learn Lithuanian.”

The Polish culture is essentially not a folk culture but a gentry one, penetrating downwards and reaching the lower classes, and Polish stereotypes are essentially of the gentry origin. The Lithuanian culture has folk roots, peasant roots, and it is a conflict of two cultures, i.e. the stereotype of the gentry culture at the level of the kolkhoz labourer who regards himself Polish because he is Catholic even though he doesn’t even speak Polish, only Russian. This gentry stereotype spells contempt for Lithuanian and the Lithuanians themselves, which, of course, is not something the Lithuanians like.

K.C.: Can you recall people who encouraged rapprochement between Poles and Lithuanians before the war? You have mentioned Juozas Keliuotis…

C.M.: Yes, he tried to organize meetings of Poles and Lithuanians in Wilno. I did not take part in these meetings then, I think. It is because at the time I lived in Wilno I said to myself: “Oh, damn it, I am tired of all that.” I was not interested, but he did organize them. Different type of meetings were organized by Michał Römer, you can read about them in “Lituanica”. I talked about Michal Römer in Kaunas on the occasion of the doctorate of honoris causa and I also talked to Landsbergis about the need to publish Römer's diaries. I suggested to the minister of culture, Kuolis, that they contact the Polish Academy of Sciences and jointly publish the diaries. There are, it seems, forty volumes of those, written in Polish. The reading of Michał Römer's diaries could be the best remedy for Polish-Lithuanian conflicts. Poles reading his diaries would understand a lot, so would the Lithuanians. Thus, he would have a remedial posthumous influence. Just like his family, as a matter of fact. The Römers live now in Brussels and young Römer visited Lithuania recently, so it is a kind of a family tradition of conflict appeasement.

K.C.: I know they are organizing an exhibition dedicated to Römer's mother at the Čiurlionis Museum, in Kaunas. Writing so much about Römer, Tyszkiewicz, Oskar Miłosz and Józef Mackiewicz, you always refer to the ideas of “the natives”, the ideas of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a federation of many nations.

C.M.: I am very keen on being regarded a citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, nevertheless, I realize it is impossible to resuscitate it on account of the fact that, as Józef Mackiewicz put it: it was torn to pieces by the Lithuanians, Belarusians and Poles alike. On my part, it means only emphasizing the heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, an attempt to recall the consciousness that is so much different to the consciousness of the so-called pure Poles or pure Lithuanians. My professor, Wiktor Sukiennicki, regarded himself a Lithuanian of the Polish culture, but such “animals” are no longer there. I have repeated that many times that I am no Lithuanian as I write in Polish. But, if I were to explore my roots it would appear obvious that Lithuanian music, for example, is for me a dozen times closer then Polish music, and when I say music I mean the folk songs I heard in my childhood.

K.C.: Where did you hear those songs?

C.M.: I heard them in Szetejnie. Every evening there was singing in the neighbouring villages so you got the impression that there was an echo that repeated one song. True, it was these villages that no longer exist. Today, there are, you saw it for yourself, just big kolkhoz fields.

K.C.: Let us return to the Polish-Lithuanian meetings organized by Römer and Keliuotis…

C.M.: Römer used to organize meetings of the notables from both sides, i.e. those that influenced the public opinion in Wilno. As you probably now the milieu of the “natives” was closely related to Wilno freemasons, and the freemasons of Wilno had a very tough life there. Only from my professor, Stanisław Swianiewicz, I learnt that there were evening meetings at the Stefan Batory University, so that there was certain continuity since the Filomath times.

Römer tried, then, to organize these meetings. Similarly to Keliuotis. But, perhaps, not at this special level, i.e. not of the notables’. Actually, I don’t remember that exactly, I dare not say what it was like. The aim was to alleviate the tension. I will repeat myself here: reconciliation at a higher, intellectual level is very easy, but the lower you go the worse it gets, and with a common policeman or clerk it is a completely different story. Or with the fanatics on this or other side, including the Lithuanian fanatics who had majority. Let us not idealize the Polish youth, either. The Polish youth before 1939 would beat the Jews, and then in turn, were beaten by the Lithuanian fanatics who would disperse with clubs the Polish people entering the church.

K.C.: Were there any initiatives of rapprochement between different cultures and nations in the multinational Wilno? Could the Literary Wednesdays be ascribed a similar character?

C.M.: The Literary Wednesdays had to some degree this international character, but only to a small degree. Basically, Literary Wednesdays was an organ of the Polish intelligentsia in Wilno, clustered mainly around the Stefan Batory University. Without the University, Wilno would have been deprived of this aura, it would not have the Polish intellectual environment. It would have possessed the Jewish one, not connected with the University. There were plenty of Jewish institutions acting completely independently of the University. There was, however, this awareness that it was a multinational city and representatives of other nations were invited to some Literary Wednesdays: one Wednesday was dedicated to the Lithuanian literature with a Lithuanian guest from Kaunas, another was dedicated to the Jewish one, in percentage terms, however, there were very few of them.

Many of the Literary Wednesdays were dedicated to theatre in Wilno. A few days ago, during a reactivated Literary Wednesday, while listening to Mrs Byrska I recalled a wonderful performance of a medieval morality play directed by her in these walls. It was a German medieval play, translated into Polish. Then, her students prepared the mystery play by Oskar Miłosz, titled Miguel Mañara, but it was staged not for the Literary Wednesdays but for the Polish Radio. In a sense, the Literary Wednesdays, radio and theatre were co-operating institutions. The Literary Wednesdays gave birth to the “Kukułka Wileńska” [Wilno Cuckoo], a literary cabaret produced mainly by Bujnicki, often with the participation of Gałczyński. „Kukułka Wileńska” was broadcast to the whole of Poland.

K.C.: I remember your story about how the Byrskis engaged you into the work for the Wilno Radio and how you were fired for standing up for the ethnic minorities.

C.M.: Yes, it was the main reason. In 1936, there was the political trial of the Dembiński’s group that once emerged from the Żagary. I was not arrested or accused of anything as they believed I did not belong to the group. My relations with the group were, as a matter of fact, rather casual, I quarrelled with them. The group split into a political, poetic and literary groups. Neither me nor Zagórski, or Bujnicki were engaged in it politically. Bujnicki was the Secretary of the Institute for Research of Eastern Europe. All the same, I shared with Byrski strong political views that found release in our international reactions towards other ethnic groups inhabiting Wilno. Thus, we invited and aired Belorussian choirs. The Belorussian choir is very good. We sometimes invited Jews to give radio talks, even about religious issues. And that was the main argument against us. I know the mechanism. A colleague of mine, working for the same Radio, would denounce me to the newspaper, to rev. Maksimilian Kolbe’s “Mały Dziennik” [The Little Daily], telling stories of a communist cell inviting Belarusians, and Jews to the Radio. They attacked me and Byrski by name. The governor at that time was voivod Bociański who persecuted the Lithuanians so much that he threw them out of the country (one of them cut his wrists in protest). He was very sensitive to the opinions of the rightist press. With the publications in Maksymilian Kolbe’s newspaper of the articles about the Communists nestled in the Radio, he fired us. But, in that Poland years ago, it wasn’t so easy. So, the administration demanded the Radio to dismiss us but the director of the radio in Warsaw replied: “What? Government is to tell us whom we should employ?! The director of the Radio was an old Pilsudski-ite legionary, Piotr, or as they called him “Piesio”, Górecki, an old “fogey”, more of a figurehead, really. The actual director was Halina Sosnowska who immediately transferred me and Byrski to Warsaw, it seems to me within a space of a few months. That marked a period of great happiness to me as I could enjoy many months off between the dismissal from Wilno to taking up the job in Warsaw. Halina Sosnowska was a wonderful person; she took part in the resistance during the Nazi occupation for which she was sentenced to life imprisonment after the war. She was released after twelve years and soon afterwards died.

K.C.: Your most recent book is titled In Search of a Homeland. So, in spite of so many years of wandering, you are still on the road?

C.M.: It seems so: the fact that I live in America introduces here the decisive element. I have noticed that the place I stayed longest in my life was Berkeley, California.

K.C.: What emotional associations do you have today when you hear the word “Krasnogruda”?

C.M.: Hmm. I have many associations, even quite a lot, but I would rather not reveal them in public.

The conversation took place in Żegary, on 7 June 1992. It was published in “Krasnogruda” 1993, n. 1; reprinted in the collection: Czesław Miłosz, Rozmowy polskie 1979–1998, Kraków 2006


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