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13.05.2015

Jewish musicians: 7 songs of Victory

The Jewish contribution to writing legendary songs that inspired soldiers

Many songs that we consider to be songs from the war in fact became known to the wider public before or after WWII. The famous “Cranes” only appeared in the late 1960s, and the lyrics were initially about soldiers killed in the Soviet-Georgian war, “Beloved Town” and the original version of the Polish “Blue Scarf” dates from 1940, the first version of “Katyusha” from 1938, “Ah, roads” from the end of 1945, and the “Song of the frontline chauffeur” from 1947.

But there are also many true wartime musical legends. Practically every song from the war years had Jewish performers, poets or composers. JewishNews.com.ua has selected seven songs which were written or sung by Jewish talents and became symbols of WWII during the war years.

“Dark Night” by Mark Bernes and Leonid Utyosov

The two main voices of the war, Bernes and Utyosov, were Ukrainian Jews, the first from Nezhin, the second from Odessa. They were both called “voiceless” performers – and although they did not have powerful voices, no one doubted their soulfulness, and ability to enter into the very heart of the audience. Utyosov considered himself to be a real professional singer, while Bernes was extremely critical of himself: “I don’t have a voice, but I do have a brain,” he said. Although he did sing and was a favorite with the public, he was not given a wage as a singer, but as an artist of the “conversation genre”. Utyosov and Bernes were often compared, and they did not like this at all, and were jealous of one another’s success.

The famous song “Dark Night”, written by the Petersburg composer Nikita Bogoslovsky and the Kiev poet Vladimir Agatov (real name Velvl Gurevich) was heard by audience in the 1943 film “Two Fighters”. It was sung by Mark Bernes – and he also played the character who sang it on film. This ballad became one of the main wartime songs in Bernes’ interpretation. The choice of performer could have been quite different– before work ended on the film, Utyosov received the music from Bogoslovsky and recorded “Dark Night” on record. But the film-makers were looking for a different timbre of voice – and they offered the song to Bernes.

Letter to the wife from a dugout

One of the main wartime songs, “Dugout”, was written in early 1942. The words of the song were written by war correspondent Konstantin Surkov in a letter to his wife about his impressions from coming under fire. This was in late 1942, and in the first months of the next year he shared the poem with Konstantin Listov, a composer from Odessa.

Listov wrote a melody which ideally suited the lyrics. Thus a song appeared which very soon became famous in the army and behind the frontlines – it was sung by soldiers, frontline creative groups, and then also popular performers, the most famous of whom was Lidiya Ruslanova.

The Road to Berlin and more

Perhaps the most cheerful victory song, “The Road to Berlin” was written in several stages and finished as a group effort. The basis of the song was written in Gomel by the poet of Jewish ancestry Yevgeny Dolmatovsky in 1943, and the additional verses were finished later.

Dolmatovsky said: “Without in any way rejecting my authorship, I still must admit that there are several lines in “The Road to Berlin”, which are not exactly not mine, but do not belong to my pen. Warsaw and Berlin were not named in the text. With my hand on my heart, I can even say that I did not even think of the name of the song. And if the word “scheme” is applicable in art, then I can say that the scheme of the song is mine…” In his version the poem ended with the line about Minsk Street, and so the road ahead led to Minsk.

After publication in the frontline newspaper “Red Army”, the poem was read by the composer Mark Fradkin in Moscow. While the song was being written, Fradkin invited Leonid Utyosov to collaborate on it, and he also performed it – as new cities were liberated before victory the lyrics of the song changed, but stayed in the same format of “streets and directions”, up until Berlin.

“Little Flame” in “Pravda”

The lyrics of this hit of the war and post-war years were written by Mikhail Isakovsky and first published on 19 April 1943 in the “Pravda” newspaper. Although the lyrics appeared before the melody, the poem was printed under the title of “Song” – the editors seemed to foretell its musical future.

During the war years, many composers offered their own versions of the melody, including Matvei Blanter and Lev Shvarts, but the song became popular with the music of an unknown author in 1947.

Correspondents from Moscow to Brest

The famous “Song of war correspondents” appeared in 1943 – the authors of the verses were the famous poet Konstantin Simonov and his friend Alexei Surkov. The melody for these lines was written by Matvei Blanter during work on the musical accompaniment to the play “Wait for Me” by Simonov. One of the most famous performers of this military song was Leonid Utyosov.

“I left Berlin”

This song came into being at the very end of the war – the words were written by Lev Oshanin, and Isaak Dunaevsky wrote the music a little later. Although the poem was written before victory, the author did not want to share the work until victory had been achieved. As soon as it took place, he went to Dunaevksy and asked him to write the music. He wrote the melody immediately, but the song did not have a chorus – it was also written on the spot. Their joint work became one of the first songs of victory.

But there was also censorship involved. The Alexandrov Red Banner Ensemble included the famous song in their program, and when several years later it was preparing a new concert in honor of the victory anniversary, the political department of the Army demanded that the words be sanitized. The original version had the chorus: “Meet together, embrace strongly, Fill the drinking horn to the brim”,” and it was to be changed to “Meet together, congratulate on victory, with dear arms embrace tightly.” And in the end this became the official version, although people remembered the first sincere and rollicking version.

Farewell of Slavyanka


And finally, the main military march which accompanied hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the frontline in the First and Second World War also owed its official birth also to a Jew, Yakov Bogorad.

According to the official story, the author of the march is Vasily Agapkin. It is thought that he brought a draft version of the work to Bogorad, a famous Simferopol musician and choir master of the 51st Lithuanian division, who helped to improve it considerably and publish it in the distant year of 1912.

According to another story, Bogorad wrote the march himself – apparantly, the pan-Slavic composition is an arrangement of Hasidic melodies, and the author had to cover himself with another composer’s name because in those times a military song by a Jewish author simply could not have seen the light of day. In any case, Bogorod certainly came up with the name of the legendary march himself – it was named in honor of the Simferol river of Slavyanka, on the bank of which the barracks of the Lithuanian division strood.

Yakov Bogorad did not survive to see victory in 1945 – he was shot along with other Jews of Simferopol at the end of 1942.

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