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Maj Gen Sidney Shachnow – Holocaust Survivor to Army Commander

 In History, Military

Maj Gen Sidney Shachnow passed into eternity in September, 2018 at the age of 83. But his life was one of survival, courage, and grit. As a member of the Army’s Special Forces, he lived a life of danger and struggle. As a young boy, he spent three years in a Nazi ghetto called Kovno in his native Lithuania.

It was extremely dangerous for children in the ghetto, many of them had to hide in secret bunkers, or in the forest. The Nazis would shoot a pregnant Jewish woman, or take away their children to be exterminated.

According to the Holocaust Research Project, “The Germans used bloodhounds, smoke grenades, and firebombs to force the Jews out into the open; in the process, some 2,000 Jews died, by choking or burning, or as a result of the explosions.  Almost 1,500 Jews are killed and hundreds flee to nearby forests.” 

About 500 Jews, including Shachnow, survived when the Red Army liberated the camp on August 1, 1944. Others had been deported to other concentration camps.

“After I finished that experience, I was very cynical about people. I didn’t trust people. I thought that there is a dark side to people. If you leave things to people, they’ll probably screw things up.” Maj Gen Sidney Shachnow to the Fayetteville Observer

He arrived in the United States in 1950, after travelling across Europe on foot. He attempted to go to school, but since he didn’t speak English well, he enlisted in the US Army. There he excelled, and earned Sgt First Class in 1960 with the 4th Armored Division. Then he joined the Army Special Forces…where he spent the next 32 years of his life.

We Are The Mighty wrote,

While fighting in Vietnam, then-Capt. Shachnow was shot in the leg and arm. According to biographers, these both happened in a single action. He applied tourniquets to both wounds and continued fighting, trying to ensure all his men were well-led and came out alive. As he recovered from his wounds, he was sent home from his first tour, only to come down with both tuberculosis and Typhoid Fever. He recovered from those illnesses along with a few others.

After recovering from his wounds and illnesses, he returned to the United States, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska and a promotion to Major. He was sent back to Vietnam, this time with the 101st Airborne, with whom he earned a second Silver Star.

In Vietnam he felt the very real heat of the Cold War against Communism but it would be his next assignment – on the front line of the Cold War – that would be his most memorable, most defining, most secret, and certainly the craziest. He was sent to a divided Berlin to command Detachment A, Berlin Brigade.

The unit’s orders were to prepare to disrupt the Soviet Bloc forces from deep inside enemy territory in the event of World War III. It was a suicide mission and they all knew it. To a man, they carried out these orders anyway.

For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for years on end, the men of Special Forces Detachment A Berlin squared off against foreign militaries, East German and Russian intelligence agencies, and other diplomatic issues. They wore civilian clothes and carried no real identification — the very definition of a “spook.”

He was commander of the special forces contingent when the Berlin Wall came down. Maj Gen Shachnow’s ribbons and medals are many.  But it’s his courage to face his past and his ability take on the future that leaves an important legacy.

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