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Katyusha Quandary

As a boy, I went for several years to a strongly Zionist, Hebrew-speaking summer camp. This was in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and our camp was designed to be a little microcosm of the new State of Israel. Among our nighttime activities was sitting around a campfire, Israeli-style, singing Hebrew songs — the very same songs that were being sung around campfires in the Jewish state. One of them, set to a vigorous Russian melody, went:

Livlevu agas ve-gam tapuah., Arpilim yardu al ha-nahar. Ve-Katyusha az yats’ah la-su’ah. Eley h.of talul ve-nehedar.

Here is the English translation:

The pear and apple trees had blossomed, Fog had covered the river, When Katyusha went walking On its steep and lovely bank.

The last two lines were sung twice. But the fun part was what happened on Ve-Katyusha, which occupied the same position in each stanza. Its first three syllables — Ve-Kat-yu — were sung very slowly, practically bringing the melody to a halt, and then the “u” of the “yu” was repeated with a sudden whoop. It came out sounding like Veh-Kat-yu-OOO-sha, the “OOOsha” taking off with a whoosh like that of a rocket.

And indeed the Katyusha rocket, thousands of which have rained down on Israel in recent weeks, derives its name from the young lady of this song, which was not originally a Hebrew tune at all, but rather Russian. (In those years, Israeli popular music borrowed many Russian melodies; this was a period when identification with a Soviet Union that had borne the brunt of the war against the Nazis, and aided the fledgling State of Israel in its fight for independence, was strong.) Or to be more exact, it was a Soviet-period song composed in 1938 by two Jews: Matvey Blanter, who wrote the music, and Mikhail Isakovsky, who wrote the words. First performed in that year by the Soviet State Jazz Orchestra, of which Blanter was the director, “Katyusha” was an instant hit and became immensely popular. Its several stanzas tell — prophetically, for World War II was still a year away — how Katyusha, walking by the riverside, thinks of her boyfriend, who has gone off to fight in the army, and how she asks the sun passing overhead to bring him her regards so that he might remember his “simple girl [and] how she sang for you.”

From the war’s beginning, therefore, Isakovsky and Blanter’s song was a favorite with Red Army soldiers, who, by midsummer of 1941 — within a month of the German invasion — were calling the Soviet-produced BM-8 and BM-13 rocket launchers “Katyushas.” These were perhaps the most original weapons that the Soviet arms industry had designed up to that point — multiple metal tubes, mounted on trucks that were highly mobile and could simultaneously fire up to 16 notoriously inaccurate but terrifyingly loud 130 mm rockets with a range of up to 8 kilometers. Widely used on the German front, they were even credited with having turned the tide at the Battle of Stalingrad. After the war, the Soviet army continued to upgrade them, and improved versions were sold to both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria, from which they reached Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Why were the rocket launchers called “Katyushas”? I had always assumed that this had something to do with that whoosh of an “OOO” in Kat-yu-OOO-sha. Yet the other day, hoping to verify this, I asked a friend of mine, a Russian musicologist, to sing the first stanza of “Katyusha” for me in Russian. He didn’t have to consult his books, for, like most Russians of his generation, he knew it by heart. It went:

Rasttzvetali yabloni i grushi, Poplili tumani nad rekoy. * na bereg Katyusha,* Na visokiy na bereg krutoy.

Which in English would be:

The apple and pear trees had blossomed, Fog had covered the river, When Katyusha walked on its bank, On its high, steep bank.

You’ll notice that the Hebrew words are a close translation, the only modifications having been made for the sake of the rhyme. And yet in the Russian version, the “OOO” of Kat-yu-OOO-sha doesn’t exist, since “Katyusha” comes not at the beginning of the third line of the stanza, as in Hebrew, but at the end of it. The “whooshed” syllable, rather, is the i of Ve’khodila, “And went,” which is sung as Ve-kho-di-EEE-la — hardly a rocketlike sound. So much for my theory!

We’ll never know then just why the BM-8 and BM-13 rocket launchers were called Katyushas. Neither Isakovsky, who died in 1973, nor Blanter, who died in 1990, is around anymore to ask. Indeed, Blanter almost died in 1945. As the story goes, he was sitting and drinking with Vasily Chuikov, a Soviet general, at the end of the Battle of Berlin, when Hans Krebs, a Nazi general, arrived to inform Chuikov of Hitler’s suicide and to negotiate the terms of a German surrender. As Blanter didn’t have a uniform, he was told to hide in a closet and to keep quiet. Several hours later, having been totally forgotten, he tumbled back out of the closet in Krebs’s startled presence, quite unconscious. This, and “Katyusha” are the things for which he will mostly be remembered.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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