In May 1967, Yossi Shemy, a trombone-playing paratrooper from Kibbutz Bet Zera, was called up to reserves. He took his Yashica camera and rigged it to his battle vest. He was 23 years old and, although he had seen combat several times before, this was his first war.
He had no interest in history. Not in making it and not in documenting it. The only thing that interested him, he told The Times of Israel recently, was to keep his head down and to keep himself alive. Shemy, who lost an eye, much of his hearing and a large chunk of his skull in a Fedayun ambush near the Dead Sea in February 1969, actually used more colorful language than that. He was quite emphatic. All he had wanted was for it to be over and for him and his friends to be sent home safe and sound.
The camera? That, he said, was simply part of him. “I take pictures the way you dump a spoonful of sugar in your coffee,” he said.
When it was over, after his company charged through the Lions Gate and secured the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, he took the six rolls of film he had shot and put them in a wooden box in a drawer in Kibbutz Beit Zera. Then he sent a terse, formal letter to the men who served with him: if they wanted a photo they should mark it properly, legibly, and send him the necessary 25 agurot and he would develop it and put it in the mail.
The commander of the paratroop brigade, Motta Gur, the one who had the pleasure of speaking the three most famous words in modern Hebrew – “the Temple Mount is in our hands” – took a few of his shots and published them in a book called Lions Gate. Shemy was not credited. Others took similar liberties. He did not care.
“I’m just not interested in those kinds of things,” he recalled. “I care about what kind of pipe I have in my hands, what kind of tobacco I have in the pipe; I care about my children, my grandchildren; that’s it.”
But his son, Shem, a doctoral candidate in philosophy and a documentary filmmaker, did care. He believes that the shots his father took – under fire; while looking for his older brother, Elisha, who fought beside him in the same brigade; while storming through the alleys; while admiring the uncommon beauty of a nurse wheeling one of the wounded to a victory parade on the Temple Mount — show a different side to the war, a boot-level view, one in which the pain of the paratroopers, who lost 98 men in two days of combat, is not papered over with collective glee or drowned out by Naomi Shemer’s bell-clear voice singing “Jerusalem of Gold.”
Reluctantly, and with the urging of Elisha, a professional trumpet player who still carries the scars of the war, he agreed to publish the photos here — 45 years later to the day, June 7. Some of them have already been shown. Others are appearing for the first time. And others still, under his son and brother’s guidance, are being readied for a book entitled “Six Days of War in Black and White” that they hope to release next year.
Shemy is now aged 68. Finally, having spent much of his career as a TV cameraman, the insistently unsentimental photographer of 1967 is documenting history.