A collection of poems by Iossif Ventouras, the only surviving Jewish man born in Crete, has recently been published in English as Tanais. It gets its name from one of the poems in the volume, which in turn is named for an ancient Greek colony in what is now Russia—and a ship whose fate was bound up with that of Cretan Jewry. Mark Glanville explains in his review:
In early June , the Nazis filled the holds of the ship with about 900 prisoners bound for Auschwitz, among them Cretan partisans, Italian prisoners of war, and the entire Jewish community of Crete, which comprised 299 souls, 88 of them children. On June 9, the Tanais was torpedoed by the British submarine Vivid, killing all but a handful of passengers. This was the end of the Cretan Jewish community, which had thrived on the island for more than 2,000 years. (Jews are said to have served as guards at the palace of Knossos, where King Minos had Daedalus build the labyrinth with his son the Minotaur at its center.)
This event looms large in Ventouras’s work, and Glanville deems “Tanais” and another poem in the volume, “Kyklonia” (“cyclone”), “two of the most important and devastating poems written in the wake of the Holocaust.” He compares their resonances, and opening verses:
Ventouras is a true heir to two ancient traditions, Jerusalem and Athens. In “Kyklonia,” he writes:
Question: what is your name?
Answer: My Jewish name, or . . . ? My Greek name is . . .’
The poem opens with an epigraph from Jeremiah (1:13): “I see a bubbling pot/ and its spout is facing north,” which the poet adopts as a description of the German invasion of Greece and Crete. Ventouras’s other great Holocaust poem, “Tanais,” opens with . . . the words of the sorceress Circe from Book Ten of the Odyssey. And Odysseus will go down to Hades to encounter the spirits of those he has fought alongside at Troy.