Storm Off the Waters of Crete

By Avrom Sutzkever, Translated by Maia Evrona

Written at a crossroads in Avrom Sutzkever’s life, “Storm Off the Waters of Crete” presents a rich confluence of myth and literary and cultural traditions. Sutzekver boarded the Patria ship illegally, after initial post-war attempts to settle in Warsaw and Paris, and it would take him to Palestine just before Israel’s founding and the subsequent war.

Describing a voyage through the Mediterranean to Israel, Sutzkever recalls the journey of Yehuda Halevi. The poem is a reminder that Sutzkever wrote within a tradition that can be traced back to the Sephardic Hebrew poets, as well as the Polish poets he had been so influenced by in his early years. This is the closing poem in the first volume of his Collected Work, and it marks a major shift in Sutzkever’s life and poetry: the period when Sutzkever, so in touch with the nature surrounding him, becomes a poet of the Mediterranean.

While Sutzkever drew strength from Halevi’s spirit, this “Storm Off the Waters of Crete” also calls to mind another famous poetic figure: Odysseus. It is thought that Gavdos, a small island off the coast of Crete, may have been where Odysseus washed ashore after his ship was destroyed by Zeus, and where he lived for seven years with Calypso.

Odysseus' journey was eventually one of homecoming. While Sutzkever’s poem ends triumphantly, he never stopped referring to Vilna as his hometown. Decades later he would describe the storks migrating over the land of Israel, from Africa back to Lite (Lithuania), and write of wishing that he, too, could complete his migration.

The island of Crete was home to a Jewish community for 2,300 years. During the Second World War, most Cretan Jews perished on another ship, called the Tanais. Intended to transport these Jews—along with Cretan resistance fighters and Italian prisoners of war—to the Greek mainland and then to Auschwitz, the ship was assumed by the British to be a German warship. On June 9, 1944, the Tanais was torpedoed near Santorini.

Storm off the waters of Crete, as if my little Patria
were at war with the sea. My swaying fatherland!
I will decrypt its secrets with gematria
before it smashes on the crags!

The storm scoffs: Boy that you are,
you have yet to see my teeth,
your hope has been kindled in vain –
Storm off the waters of Crete!

Lava gushes forth from a volcanic abyss.
Dressed in white, the dark captain flees —
Above me leaping sharks and flying fish.
Another captain steers his ship-bound destiny.

And a wave strips my flesh
and clothes away from me:
—The time has come, confess your last!
Tomorrow your child plays with pearls of the seas.

I answer the storm-king: On this same sea
Halevi fled his Spanish home for Zion
and his longing, whose flame I breathe,
will subdue your kingdom, you volcanic sovereign!

Shatter me on craggy shores with your waves,
or swallow me in foaming clefts,
I’ve come nearly the first half of the way
I am bound with the second half.

Like the stilled knife in Abraham’s hand —
the storm above me. And my Patria rolls,
her neck straightened, in a golden garland,
away from the rocks with rainbow-sails.

And the waves grow bright and serene
the ruined temples bow once more.
Until before me floats the Galilee —
six million suns in every drop of that sea.



On the Patria ship, September 1947

שטורעם אױף די װאַסערן בײַ קרעטע, װי עס װאָלט 
מיטן גאַנצן ים אַצינד געקעמפֿט מײַן קלײנע ”פּאַטריאַ “. 
ס’װאָקלט זיך דאָס פֿאָטערלאַנד! אָן פֿעלדזן װערט צעמאָלט 
װיל איך אױסגעפֿינען זײַנע סודות בגימטריא. 

לאַכט דער שטורעם׃ ייִנגל װאָס דו ביסט, 
מײַנע צײנער זענען אומגעזעטע, 
האָסט געצונדן האָפֿענונג אומזיסט — 
שטורעם אױף די װאַסערן פֿון קרעטע! 

פֿון די תּהומען שיסט אַרױף מיט לאַװע אַ װוּלקאַן. 
איבער מיר אַ שפּרינגעניש פֿון הײַפֿישן מיט פֿליפֿישן. 
אָנגעטאָן אין װײַסן לױפֿט דער שװאַרצער קאַפּיטאַן,— 
ס’קערעװעט אַ צװײטער מיט זײַן גורל מיט זײַן שיפֿישן. 

און אַראָפּגעשונדן האָט אַן אינד 
מײַנע קלײדער מיט דער הױט צוזאַמען׃ 
צײַט פֿאַר װידױ! מאָרגן װעט דײַן קינד 
שפּילן זיך מיט פּערל פֿון די ימען. 

ענטפֿער איך דעם שטורעם־קיניג׃ אױפֿן זעלבן ים 
האָט הלױ זיך געלאָזן פֿון זײַן הײם דער שפּאַנישער, 
און זײַן ציון־בענקשאַפֿט, װאָס אַיך אָטעם־אײַן איר פֿלאַם, 
װעט דײַן קיניגרײַך באַהערשן, הערשער דו װאָלקאַנישער! 

קענסט מיך פּיצלען אָנעם פֿעלדז פֿון ברעג, 
אָדער שלינגען אין צעשױמטע שלונדן. 
קױם דערצױגן כ’האָב אַ האַלבן װעג, 
מיטן צװײטן בין סײַ װי פֿאַרבונדן. 

װי דער חלף אַ געלײמטער אין אַברהמס האַנט — 
איבער מיר דער שטורעם. און מײַן “פּאַטריאַ” די בױגיקע, 
אױסגעגלײַכט דעם נאַקן, אין אַ גילדענעם גירלאַנד, 
הױדעט פֿונעם פֿעלדז אַװעק מיט זעגלען רעגן־בױגיקע. 

און די כװאַליעס נעמען זוניק־שטיל 
די צעהאַקטע טעמפּלען װידער בױען. 
ביז אַנטקעגן שװעבט מיר דער גליל — 
זונען זעקס מיליאָן אין זײַנע טױען. 



שיף "פּאַטריאַ" סעפּטעמבער 1947

Maia Evrona is a poet, writer and translator. She was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow and has also received fellowships in translation from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Literary Translators Association. In 2019, she was the inaugural recipient of the joint Spain-Greece Fulbright Scholar Award. She will again serve as the Fulbright fellow to Spain and Greece in 2021–22. Her Greek host institution will be the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, Crete.