Peter Goldsworthy reviews 'Miłosz: A biography' by Andrzej Franaszek, edited and translated by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker

About halfway through this thick biography of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz (and halfway through the century of horrors that his life experiences uncannily track and are witness to) came a passage that stopped me dead.

In the spring of 1943, on a beautiful quiet night, a country night in the outskirts of Warsaw, standing on the balcony, we could hear screaming from the ghetto. The screaming was the sound of people being murdered ... The screaming gave us goose-pimples ... We did not look each other in the eye.

It is hard to look those words in the eye. The occasion was the mass murder of the last Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Two or three hundred thousand had already gone to the extermination camps; many thousands who remained fought to the death against the Germans. I hadn’t read this passage before in any of Miłosz’s extensive prose writings. It wasn’t included in The Captive Mind (1953), his superb book about the accommodations and cowardices of artists and intellectuals living under totalitarianism, but that book was more concerned with the monstrous regimes of the left than of the right.

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