Isaac Sobolev was born in 1915 in the shtetl of Polonnoye in the Volhynia Governorate (now in the Zhytomyr Region, Ukraine), as one of many siblings. The last name Sobolev had originated with his great-grandfather, a cantonist who had served in the Tsarist army for 25 years.
Isaac exhibited literary proclivities from early childhood. While at school, he attended a drama club. He wrote the play performed at the school graduation ceremony.
At the age of 15, Isaac joined his elder sister in Moscow. Wishing to achieve financial independence as soon as possible, Isaac Sobolev enrolled in a factory school and obtained a plumber's diploma, whereupon he began to work at an aviation motor factory. He published poems and sketches in the factory newspaper. Shortly thereafter, he managed to find employment in a newspaper with a city-wide circulation, which published both poetry and articles by him. It was then that he changed his Jewish first name, Isaac, to Aleksandr.
In late June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Sobolev, like many of his Soviet citizens, was drafted. He was sent to the front lines and attached as a machine gunner to an infantry division. While serving there, he was seriously wounded and shell-shocked. He then returned to Moscow with the rank of sergeant, and was recognized as a disabled war veteran of the 2nd category. During the war, he continued writing poems and articles, which were published in a frontline newspaper.
In 1944, Sobolev was released from active duty because of his numerous injuries, and sent to work at a military factory in Moscow. There, Aleksandr was quickly appointed executive secretary of the factory newspaper, which also ran some sketches by him. However, he was promptly dismissed from that post for failing to toe the communist line with sufficient zeal. Because of the antisemitic campaign waged in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sobolev was unable to find employment. Once, by sheer luck, he got a job as a quartermaster at a military unit. However, Sobolev was unable to secure a permanent source of income for a long time, and his poetry and prose remained unpublished.
In 1958, five years after Stalin's death, Sobolev heard a radio broadcast about the erection of a monument to the numerous victims of Nazism on the grounds of the former Buchenwald Concentration Camp. This inspired him to write a poem, which would later become famous as the lyrics of the beloved song "The Alarm Bells of Buchenwald".
People of the world, stand up in silence!
Listen: Bells are tolling everywhere –
This is the alarm of Buchenwald
Ringing through the world, ringing through the world.
Thus, the righteous blood has been rekindled,
growing in the pealing of the bronze.
Thus, the victims, rising from the ashes,
have come back to life, have come back to life!
Have come back to life! (1958)
Initially, Sobolev submitted this poem to the major Soviet press organ, Pravda, thinking that they would be interested in the works of a disabled war veteran, but his hopes were dashed. Ultimately, the poem was published in the newspaper Trud, and then sent to the composer Vano Muradeli. Muradeli was able to compose a tune for it in record time. The Soviet officials at the All-Union Radio were critical of the new song, but, fortunately, the Komsomol Committee took a liking to it, allowing it to be performed at an international contest in Vienna. There, it became an instant hit. It was not heard in the USSR until 1960, but then it grew popular enough to be nominated for the Lenin Prize in 1962. However, the nomination was rejected. Furthermore, although the song was performed repeatedly over the years, the name of its author (unlike that of the composer) was not mentioned. Apparently, this official disfavor stemmed both from Sobolev's Jewishness and from his unwillingness to obey the dictates of the Soviet cultural authorities. Sobolev received no royalties for the countless performances of his lyrics, or for the many millions of phonograph records that included them. He could barely make ends meet, and his works languished unpublished, except for two occasions: In 1967, a collection of satirical verse by him titled "The Shaved Hedgehog" appeared in the supplement to the satirical magazine Krokodil; in 1986, his military poems came out in a volume entitled The Alarm Bells of Buchenwald.
Aleksandr Sobolev died in Moscow in 1986, after a lengthy illness.
In 1996, ten years after Sobolev's death, his widow, the journalist Tatiana Soboleva, teamed up with the Jewish Cultural Association to publish a selection of his poetry under the title The Alarm Bells of Buchenwald: Imprisoned Lines. 1999 saw the publication of Sobolev's novel Yefim Segal, a Shell-Shocked Sergeant, which had been completed back in 1977. In 2006, Tatiana Soboleva published a biography of her late husband titled An Honest Jew in Disgrace….
An excerpt from the poem "To the Jews of the Soviet Union"
Jews can be scientists, doctors, geologists;
They can play the violin, forge metals, and till the soil…
We are not "fragments of the Diaspora",
We are a million-strong people!
Who can declare that a Jew is worse,
Than, say, a Chukchi or a Kalmyk?
Then why, oh why,
Is our native language in exile?
Only a single grey, drab journal
Is eking out a miserable existence.
Is this what our culture has come to?!
Where are our schools and universities?
There aren't any.
Where are the theaters? They have been closed for a long time.
And our cultural edifice has been swept away
By the tide of antisemitism.