June 7, 2016

Feature: Mr. Shemesh

Sam Lurie ‘19




Few would suspect that the friendly and mild-mannered Mr. Shemesh, a new addition to the GOA Hebrew department, was a member of the Soviet Army during the Cold War.
            Shemesh, a talented clarinetist, grew up in Soviet Russia and by his college years was studying to become a musician. Everyone in Russia was drafted – similar to Israel – but Shemesh voluntarily joined the army to be considered as an apprentice in the army band, which he particularly liked as there were many Jews in it, including his officer.
“It was easy for us,” Shemesh said.
At this time, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been reducing the size of the army to ease its strain on the economy. Thusly, the army band, a non-vital unit of the army, was dissolved after Shemesh was a member for only one year.
Shemesh and the other musicians were then sent to the regular army. The regular army was a very different experience; there were only two Jews in his unit: himself and a fellow clarinet player from the band. 
“The soldiers did not accept us,” he said.
He clarified that he did not believe that the cold shoulder from the other soldiers in his unit was anti-semitism, but a disapproval that Shemesh and his friend were musicians and not “real soldiers.” Shemesh admitted that their opinions were not so outrageous, as neither Shemesh nor his friend had any formal army training.
However, Shemesh said that he believed his officers were anti-semitic. On Saturday afternoons, soldiers were given free time to watch movies, read and socialize. Shemesh always missed this time as he was always put to work, usually with the dirty jobs. Shemesh had to work in the kitchen, cleaning and serving over 1,000 soldiers as well as work on guard duty. On weekends, he was only allowed four hours of sleep.
Shemesh’s first real job in the army was to care for the pigs, which the army was raising for food because the standard army food was “disgusting” canned food. Shemesh cleaned the pigs, fed them and worked with the vets.
Looking back, Shemesh smiles remembering that he was so stinky after a day’s work with the pigs that the other soldiers did not allow him back into the barracks unless he completely undressed.
Shemesh’s days in the army got somewhat better when he was given the job of unloading train cars of cabbage and marinating it for the other soldiers. He said that he was, “Happy [to be] not with pigs.”
Shemesh also worked extra hard on this assignment.
“I wanted to show that I was not just some musician who didn’t know anything in life.”
Shemesh also fondly recalled eating cabbage while working, because “you’re always hungry when you’re a soldier.”
Shemesh’s hard work paid off as after working with the cabbage for a few weeks, he was given his first award from the commandant for his excellent labor. Despite this recognition as a good soldier and responsible person, Shemesh said that his officers still did not like that he was Jewish.
Unfortunately, this bliss did not last for long. During the week, soldiers reviewed their training constantly, giving Shemesh an opportunity to train as well. However, due to a gun malfunction, Shemesh shot himself in the foot, causing a loss of half of his big toe.
There was some speculation that Shemesh had shot himself on purpose to get discharged, but the gun was tested and proven to be faulty. Shemesh was then sent to stay in the army hospital.
When Shemesh recovered and was once again able to walk, he was asked by a nurse whom he had befriended if he wanted to stay and be a surgery assistant; Shemesh agreed.
After a short three months helping in the hospital, Shemesh was called back to his unit by the commanders, but the other soldiers once again viewed Shemesh as a slacker. 
When it was time to be discharged, Shemesh had another dilemma: the discharging process lasted a few months, with the officers usually letting the best soldiers leave toward the beginning of the process, while keeping the lazy ones until the end. Shemesh knew that he would be discharged toward the end, but would then miss an exam he wished to take to get his Masters degree in music. 
He asked his commanding officer if he could be discharged on the earlier end, but the officer refused. Without options, Shemesh wrote a letter to higher ranking officers about his problem. They decided to let Shemesh go before the exam, infuriating Shemesh’s commanding officer.
This came back to bite Shemesh. On a soldier’s last day in the service, he would usually do no work, say goodbye to his friends and get showered and cleaned up for his discharging. 
Shemesh, on the other hand, was ordered on his last two days to dig a trench in the sand for no apparent purpose. The sand kept falling back into the trench and it was an extremely hot two days. Just a half an hour before his discharging, Shemesh was allowed to change his clothes, but had no time for a shower.
Shemesh was in the Soviet army for a total of two and a half years. When asked about his overall experience, Shemesh said:

“I didn’t see a life [for me] in my unit.  I was just always working.”

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