Sid­ney Shachnow, Holo­caust es­capee who be­came U.S. gen­eral, dies at 83

Texarkana Gazette - - RECORDS - By Richard San­domir

Maj. Gen. Sid­ney Shachnow, who es­caped a Nazi la­bor camp in Lithua­nia as a boy and later rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army, even­tu­ally lead­ing its forces in Ber­lin at the end of the Cold War, died Sept. 27 in Pine­hurst, N.C. He was 83.

His daugh­ter LeeAnne Meis­ter con­firmed the death, at a hos­pi­tal near his horse farms in South­ern Pines. He had Parkin­son’s disease, atrial fib­ril­la­tion and poly­cythemia vera, a blood can­cer, she said.

His path to be­com­ing a ma­jor gen­eral be­gan in Kau­nas, also known as Kovno, a ma­jor city in south-cen­tral Lithua­nia, where he was born Schaja Shachnowski on Nov. 23, 1934, to Leon and Rose (Schus­ter) Shachnowski. His fa­ther was an en­gi­neer; his mother, a home­maker and seam­stress.

The Shachnowskis were rel­a­tively pros­per­ous Jews. But their lives were al­tered dra­mat­i­cally when they were up­rooted from their home and herded into shoddy hous­ing in a nearby ghetto that had been sealed off by the Ger­mans. They be­came forced la­bor­ers for their oc­cu­piers.

The ghetto was a de facto con­cen­tra­tion camp, Shachnow re­called many years later. Though it had no gas cham­bers or cre­ma­to­ries, he said, nearly every­body there died.

“Our camp did things the old-fash­ioned way,” he said in a speech at Elon Univer­sity, in North Carolina, in 2014. “Sev­eral bull­doz­ers would dig a ditch; peo­ple would be asked to move to the edge of the ditch. In most cases they were naked. Au­to­matic weapons would kill them. They would fall into the ditch, some wounded and not dead, and if you were ly­ing on the ledge, an in­di­vid­ual would throw you into the ditch.”

Af­ter three years of es­ca­lat­ing bru­tal­ity (in one in­stance a guard beat him with a shovel), his fam­ily de­vised an im­prob­a­ble but suc­cess­ful es­cape plan for him. Leav­ing be­hind his weep­ing par­ents one morn­ing be­fore dawn, 9-year-old Schaja hid un­der his Un­cle Wil­lie’s long coat as the un­cle, with Schaja mov­ing in rhythm with him, walked through the gates, pass­ing guards and a work de­tail that was of­ten sent out­side the ghetto. Shortly af­ter­ward, chil­dren at the camp were liq­ui­dated.

When he and his un­cle reached the streets beyond the gates of the ghetto, he said, his un­cle gave him a pre­ar­ranged sig­nal to emerge from un­der the coat and find his con­tact, a woman wear­ing a red ker­chief. Fol­low­ing the route he had been given, Schaja found her and fol­lowed her to tem­po­rary safety—in a stor­age room of a build­ing with a ta­ble, chairs and a toi­let.

She locked the door, and he won­dered, he later re­called, if he had traded one im­pris­on­ment for an­other.

“I had es­caped from hell!” Shachnow wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Hope and Honor” (2004), writ­ten with Jan Rob­bins. “Or had I?”

Af­ter­ward he was taken in by a Ro­man Catholic fam­ily and lived with them for sev­eral months. He was then re­united with his mother, who had es­caped from the camp, and his younger brother, Mula, who had been smug­gled to safety dis­guised as a girl. For a while they lived in the fam­ily’s house in Kau­nas with Soviet of­fi­cers; the Red Army had by then had taken con­trol of Lithua­nia.

But fear­ing that the com­mu­nists would seal the coun­try’s bor­ders af­ter the war, Schaja left with his mother and brother on a 2,000mile trek by foot, wagon and train through Poland, Cze­choslo­vakia and Hun­gary be­fore set­tling in Furth, Ger­many, near Nurem­berg, in fall 1945. His fa­ther, who had been fight­ing the Ger­mans with par­ti­sans, re­joined them, and they charted a path to the United States.

In 1950 the fam­ily left Ger­many on a Navy trans­port ship and ar­rived in Bos­ton. Schaja, his par­ents and brother set­tled in Salem, Mass., where rel­a­tives had pre­ceded them. As they sought to as­sim­i­late—he did not speak English at first—Schaja be­came known as Sid­ney and his brother as Stan­ley.

Sid­ney at­tended high school but dropped out in 1955 and joined the Army. He mar­ried Ar­lene Arm­strong—a JewishCatholic union that his par­ents op­posed

“Join the new world,” he re­called telling his par­ents. “Amer­ica, the melt­ing pot. Have you even taken a step into this world? You both live in the past!”

Start­ing as an in­fantry pri­vate, he rose to cap­tain in the Spe­cial Forces, or Green Berets, in 1962 and fought in Viet­nam, twice re­ceiv­ing the Sil­ver Star for valor.

Trans­ferred to West Ber­lin in 1970, he was given com­mand of De­tach­ment (A), an elite Spe­cial Forces unit that con­ducted clan­des­tine in­tel­li­gence mis­sions in Eastern Europe. He led it for four years.

“They served on the front lines of the Cold War and never fired a shot in anger,” Shachnow told Task & Pur­pose, a na­tional se­cu­rity news web­site, last year. “No force of its size in his­tory has con­trib­uted more to peace, sta­bil­ity and free­dom.”

Af­ter other post­ings, in­clud­ing as direc­tor of the U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand in Wash­ing­ton, he re­turned to West Ber­lin as the Army’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer in 1989, when events were un­fold­ing that would lead to the fall of the Ber­lin Wall and the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many.

As a Ger­man-speak­ing com­bat vet­eran, Shachnow was well suited to serve in Ber­lin. But as a Holo­caust survivor, he was con­fronted with what he felt was de­li­cious irony: His head­quar­ters had been those of the pow­er­ful Nazi of­fi­cial Her­mann Göring, and his res­i­dence had once be­longed to Fritz Rein­hardt, a fi­nance min­is­ter un­der Hitler.

“Here it is, the very cap­i­tal of fas­cism and the Third Re­ich,” Shachnow once told The Fayet­teville Ob­server in North Carolina. “The very build­ings and streets where they were goose-step­ping and Heil-Hit­ler­ing, and the very sys­tem that put me in the camp and killed many peo­ple.”

Af­ter leav­ing Ber­lin, he was ap­pointed com­man­der of the Spe­cial Forces and com­mand­ing gen­eral of the John F. Kennedy Spe­cial War­fare Cen­ter and School at Fort Bragg, N.C. While in the ser­vice he re­ceived a bach­e­lor’s de­gree from the Univer­sity of Ne­braska and a mas­ter’s de­gree in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion from Ship­pens­burg State Col­lege (now Ship­pens­burg Univer­sity) in Penn­syl­va­nia.

He re­tired from the Army in 1994.

Dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Shachnow helped or­ga­nize an en­dorse­ment of Don­ald Trump by 88 re­tired mil­i­tary lead­ers. They said they be­lieved Trump would make a “long over­due course cor­rec­tion in our na­tional se­cu­rity pos­ture.”

In ad­di­tion to his wife and his daugh­ter LeeAnne, he is sur­vived by three other daugh­ters, Sheree Gil­lette, Michelle Batiste and Denise Smith; 14 grand­chil­dren; 14 great-grand­chil­dren; and his brother.

Shachnow said that flex­i­bil­ity, tenac­ity and as­sertive­ness were among the qual­i­ties that had helped him sur­vive the Holo­caust.

“Un­avoid­able suf­fer­ing can give you mean­ing in life,” he said in the Elon Univer­sity speech. “For me, my mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence, my ex­pe­ri­ence in a con­cen­tra­tion camp and my re­la­tion­ship with my wife gave me mean­ing.”

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