The poet David Samoilov (né Kaufman) was born in Moscow in 1920, into a family that belonged to the Jewish intelligentsia. His father Samuil was a well-known physician. David would adopt his pseudonym in honor of his father after the end of the Soviet-German war.
In 1938, David finished school and entered the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History. While a student there, Dezik (as his friends called him) became close to several poets who later come to be known as poets of the war generation. They included Pavel Kogan, Boris Slutskii, Mikhail Kulchitskii, and Sergei Narovchatov. On a number of occasions David mentioned them in his verses – e.g., in the poem "Piatero" [The Five], which includes the following lines:
"There lived five poets
During one prewar spring,
Unknown, not repeated ad nauseam,
Who composed verses about war…" (1973)1
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, David, like many of his fellow students, was drafted and sent to the "labor front" near the town of Viazma, where he dug trenches. There, he fell seriously ill and returned to Moscow, from which he was evacuated to Samarkand, where he attended the evening classes of a pedagogical institute. However, he soon entered an infantry school. Upon completing it in 1942, David was sent as a private to the Volkhov Front. Later, in his memoirs, he would describe his frontline encounters with people from very different social strata, people whom he had never met as a student from a Moscow Jewish family. He summarized his feelings in one phrase: "The main thing that the war taught me was empathy with the common people."
In 1943, he was seriously wounded in the arm, and his life was saved by his friend Semion Kosov, to whom he would later dedicate the postwar poem "Semion Andreich" (1946). After being discharged from hospital in March 1944, David continued his military service in an intelligence company of the 1st Belorussian Front, taking part in the liberation of Poland from German occupation. He met V-E Day in Berlin with the rank of corporal. During the war, David wrote a satirical poem about Hitler and verses about the fortunate soldier Foma Smyslov, publishing these works (under the pseudonym "Semion Shilo") in a garrison newspaper.
David received the Order of the Red Star and a number of medals.
There are no explicit references to Jewish topics in his postwar poetry. On that basis, it has been assumed that his Jewish consciousness was not great. However, in 1944 he wrote a poem "Devochka" [The Girl], which expressed his feelings and thoughts upon being confronted by the Holocaust. Apparently, his ethnic identity was at its height during the war, under the impact of what he saw and heard.
In 1945, after the end of the war, David returned to Moscow. He became a member of the Union of Writers and translated works from French, Albanian, Czech, Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Polish, and some languages of the peoples of the Soviet Union.
David Samoilov's first book of poetry, Blizhnie strany [Near Countries], was published in 1958.
In 1967, the poet moved to the village of Opalikha near Moscow.
While he took no part in official (Soviet-sponsored) literary activities, he was quite active himself, being on friendly terms with many of the literati. Thus, the German writer Heinrich Böll visited him in Opalikha, as did his friends, the well-known contemporary writers Fazil Iskander, Iurii Levitanskii, Bulat Okudzhava, Iurii Liubimov, Zinovii Gerdt, and others.
Although Samoilov was not a dissident, the KGB kept an eye on him.
In 1976, Samoilov settled in the seaside town of Pärnu in Estonia.
His published poetry collections include Vtoroi pereval [Second Mountain Pass] (1962), Dni [Days] (1970), Voina i kamen [War and Stone] (1974), Linii ruki [The Lines of a Hand] (1981), and others.
He continuously returned to the subject of World War II. Between 1960 and 1975, he wrote some popular poems, such as "Sorokovye" [The '40s] and "Perebiraia nashi daty" [Leafing through Our Days].
In 1988, David Samoilov was awarded the State Prize of the USSR for Literature and the Arts.
For many years, Samoilov kept a journal, and its entries served as the basis for a prose work that was published posthumously in 1995 in the book Pamiatnye zapiski [Memorable Notes].
The poet died in Tallinn on February 23, 1990, from a heart attack. His death occurred during an evening devoted to Boris Pasternak, of which Samoilov had been the master of ceremonies. He was buried in Pärnu.2
Samoilov's Poem "Devochka" [The Girl]
For eight days, the Jews were put
By the Krauts into sand pits.
For eight days, as on St. Bartholomew's Night,
The earth was dug up and the houses were burning.
'Hear, o God!' their rabbis screamed.
'Hear, o God!' their widows wailed.
And the Lord heard the innocents –
He saved one child from the hands of the murderer.
The girl, a bedraggled jackdaw chick,
A little bird rumpled by a storm.
And with eyes – not like those of all other girls –
But half-mad with fear.
I embraced the unfortunate child,
Sat with her on a fallen-in porch,
Untangled her hair with a comb,
Hair like in 'The Song of Songs'.
Girl! And I am carrying and warming,
Under my rough and strange-looking mask
The heart of Jews by God's grace,
Who failed to be granted God's grace.