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“Standing on the balcony, we heard a scream from the ghetto”. The Story of Andrzej and Czesław Miłosz

During the years of German occupation, brothers Andrzej and Czesław Miłosz helped Jews in Wilno and Warsaw. During the extermination of these ghettos, they organised refuge, false identity documents and financial support for the Tross and Wołkomiński families. Faced with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Czesław, who would later win a Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote the poem Campo di Fiori (1943).


The Second World War separated the Miłosz brothers. The younger Andrzej remained in their Lithuanian home, while Czesław returned to German-occupied Warsaw, a city with which he had been connected since the late 1930’s. They both aided Jews.

Andrzej Miłosz – the Underground in Wilno

Andrzej Miłosz (after the war, a journalist, writer, translator and director of documentary films), was energetic and athletic. He flew gliders and parachuted. During the war, he joined the underground in Wilno, which was where he lived. He organised the escapes of Polish officers, from Lithuanian internment camps, through Sweden to France. He also organised the first courier routes through the Wilno region. He was a member of the the Armia Krajowa (the Home Army)

“He was considered as one of the underground’s bravest people”, recalled columnist Stefan Bratkowski. 

At 15 Popowska Street, in a rented house with a garden, he established a transfer-point for Jews. From the ghetto, established by the Germans in Wilno in the summer of 1941, these people had fled to the Rudnicki Forest, where they joined the partisan units or the “family camps”.

Czesław Miłosz – Underground Literary Life in Occupied Warsaw

Czesław Miłosz (poet, writer of prose, translator, diplomat, 1980 Nobel Prize for  Literature winner, Knight of the Order of the White Eagle) was six years older. He worked for Polish Radio and served at the front at a military radio station. In the summer of 1940, he reached Warsaw, through Romania and Wilno. 

He lived at 131 Niepodległości Avenue, together with his future wife Janina Dłuska-Cękalska and her parents. He was active in underground literary life. Wiersze (Poems)was published under the pseudonym “Jan Syruć”, which was the first underground poetry publication in occupied Warsaw. He prepared the poetry anthology Pieśń niepodległa (1942). He also translated literature, including Jacque Maritaine’s Drogami klęski about France’s defeat against the Third Reich in 1940 and the works of Shakespeare for Tajna Rada Teatralna (Secret Theatre Council).

The Brothers’ Work with Władysław Ryniec

Andrzej and Czesław supported the Tross couple. In 1943, Andrzej helped the couple to get out of the Wilno ghetto. Czesław found them a hiding-place in Warsaw. They arranged false identity documents and supported them financially. In implementing their plan, the brothers were helped by Czesław’s friend, Władysław Ryniec, who was a fellow law student in Wilno. 

Ryniec ran a transport company, which carried out official trade operations between Wilno, Minsk and Warsaw. The author of Czesław Miłosz’s biography, Andrzej Franaszek, wrote, “Thanks to bribing the German authorities and working with various partisan groups, [the company] traded currency, smuggled weapons and secret documents and helped Jews escape from the Wilno ghetto”.

According to the Yad Vashem Institute, the help provided to Jews by the Miłosz brothers was directly related to their activities, in Wilno and then in Warsaw, in the “Freedom” Socialist-Independence Organisation and as associate members of the Polish Socialist Party:

“In Warsaw, Ryniec invested some of his huge profits in books. As his agent, Miłosz concluded agreements with, among others, Tadeusz Breza, Jana Brzechwa, […] Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Jan Dobraczyński and Zofia Nałkowska […]”.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

“We didn’t look into each other’s eyes”, concluded the poet, recalling after the war, a spring night in 1943, as the rebellion continued in the Warsaw ghetto

“[…] standing on the balcony, we heard a scream from the ghetto. […] That scream was chilling. It was the cry of thousands of people being murdered. From the red glow of fires, under the indifferent stars, it flew through the silent spaces of the city into the gracious silence of the gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen. The air smelled and one felt that life was good. There was something especially cruel about this nighttime peace, the beauty of which and the crime of humanity hit the heart simultaneously”. 

At that time, he was hiding Felicja Wołkomińska, her daughter and sister-in-law, who had fled from the closed district and had knocked on his door just before the outbreak of the Uprising. A few days later, on Easter Sunday, Czesław Miłosz was travelling by tram to Bielany [a Warsaw suburb]. The tram stopped at Krasińskich Square. The poet saw a carousel, with people spinning on it. That image inspired the creation of the Campo di Fiori verses – a voice of opposition to the destruction of the ghetto. Years later, he referred to it as an immoral poem, written about death, from the perspective of an observer: 

“At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday”1.

He endeavoured to evokoe the essence of participation together in Biedny chrześcijanin patrzy na getto (The Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto):

“What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Te­sta­ment,
Wa­iting two tho­usand years for the se­cond co­ming of Je­sus?
My bro­ken body will de­li­ver me to his si­ght
And he will co­unt me among the hel­pers of de­ath:
The un­cir­cum­ci­sed”2.

Andrzej Franaszek, his biographer, analysed it this way, “In this poem he says,‘I’ am the one who is dead and who has fallen apart […], who is at fault and who is afraid of the accusation”. 

In 1987, the poet’s thought was taken on by Jan Błoński in his essay Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto (Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto), considered to be a landmark in the literature on Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. Błoński posed the question about the shared responsibility of Poles for the Holocaust which took place on Polish soil. It provoked “a discussion that was the beginning of an limitless work of remembrance”, as Franaszek wrote.

Honouring the Miłosz Brothers

The Tross couple, whom Andrzej and Czesław Miłosz helped during the Holocaust, perished in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Felicja Wołkomińska survived and left for Israel in 1957.

On 25th July 1987, on the basis of testimony provided by Wołkomińska, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured Andrzej and Czesław Miłosz with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.


1 Translated by David Brooks and Louis Iribarne. See: The Collected Poems 1931–1987 by Czeslaw Milosz, New York 1988, pp. 6465.

2 Ibid., pp. 3334.

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Bibliography

  • Franaszek Andrzej, Miłosz. Biografia, Kraków 2011
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Miłosz Czesław, Rok myśliwego, Kraków 1999