Skip to main content

Time Period: Vietnam War and Cold War

Major General Sidney Shachnow was born in Lithuania in 1934, with the birth name of Schaja Shachnowski. When the Nazis invaded his country, Sidney was only seven years old. He and his family were deported to the Kovno concentration camp, performing extreme manual labor and enduring brutal treatment. To help his family survive, Shachnow was forced to steal food. After three years, Shachnow was smuggled out of the camp and lived with a farming family. He got out just in time, as the children in the camp were murdered a scant few days later. Shortly before the camp was shut down, anyone who was left was sent to Auschwitz, but Shachnow’s mother and brother managed to escape. The rest of his family was tragically killed. Out of 40,000 Jews imprisoned at Kovno, only 2,000 survived.

At the end of the war, Shachnow and his family were liberated by Soviet soldiers. They survived the next few years partly because Shachnow worked in the black market to obtain contraband for Allied soldiers. Eventually, they made their way to America and settled in Salem, Massachusetts. Shachnow attended school for the first time at 16, learned English, and enlisted in the US Army, which helped him complete his college education. In 1958, he became naturalized as a US citizen and formally changed his name to Sidney Shachnow.

The majority of Shachnow’s decorated 40-year military service was spent as a Green Beret in the Special
Forces. After going through Ranger school, Shachnow earned his officer’s commission in 1960 and became a second lieutenant based out of Fort Bragg. He commanded an infantry unit in the 4th Armored Division, and served in Germany at the height of the Cold War. He was deployedto Vietnam twice, once with Special Forces and once with the 101st Airborne. “Things went pretty well—I enjoyed the assignment, even though I got shot twice,” Shachnow said afterward. “Sometimes, as unimaginable as a situation is, there’s a thrill in cheating death and you operate with all your senses at peak efficiency.”

His Eastern European background proved invaluable to his success. Since he spoke German and Russian, and had firsthand knowledge of the ghettos and camps, he was assigned to Detachment-A (Det-A), a Cold War covert unit. During the 70s, as the Cold War intensified, Shachnow was sent to Berlin twice—the first time on a secret mission with Det-A, and the second trip coincided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when he commanded the Berlin Brigade. At one point, he stayed at the former villa of Hitler’s finance minister, General Fritz Reinhardt.

Ironically, Shachnow found himself in a strange position. He had escaped from the Germans, who had incarcerated him as a child, went on to become a decorated American officer, and then returned to Europe to protect the Germans, his oppressors, from the Soviets—the very people
who had liberated him!

With such a distinguished military career, Shachnow received numerous awards and accolades. Given his extreme involvement in formalizing the role of the Special Forces within the Army, he was inducted as a distinguished member of the Special Forces Regiment. There is even an award that carries his name, the Sidney Shachnow Award, given to service members who have “distinguished themselves through superior conduct in the War on Terrorism.”

After retiring from the military, Shachnow was involved in a number of charities. He continued his military involvement through mentoring and lecturing, especially to benefit veterans. He was devoted to helping the Wounded Warrior program, whose members described Shachnow as incredibly caring.

For decades, no one knew about the painful childhood experiences Shachnow endured during the Holocaust. He kept mum on the subject, not sure if anyone would believe him. But at age 70, he published Hope and Honor, an autobiographical memoir in which he retold his incredible life story. The book enjoyed great success, including earning the prestigious Colby Award.

Maj Gen Sidney Shachnow and his wife Arlene were married for 63 years and had four daughters. General Schachnow passed away in 2018 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Bull Simons Award, given to Special Operations warriors by US Special Operations Command, which joined his plethora of awards and medals—including two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star with Valor, the Legion of Merit, and many more.

Originally published in The Shavuot 5783 Jewish-American Warrior Magazine