Born in Lithuania, much of Shachnow’s extended family was grabbed by the Nazis when he was 6, and sent to the Kovno concentration camp. He was forced to watch as most of his family was killed, and survived by volunteering for heavy labor. Apparently with the help of his mother, Shachnow, who had just turned 10, was smuggled out of the camp at a good time: just before the “Children’s Action” — when the children in the camp were rounded up and killed. After the war, Shachnow, his mother, and a few other surviving family members mostly walked 2,000 miles to get to western-controlled territory — Nuremberg, Germany. It took them six months. They hoped to emigrate to the United States, and finally got a visa in 1950. After settling in Salem, Mass., Shachnow started school — the first time he went to school in his life; he was 16. He graduated high school, got married, and joined the U.S. Army. “I had many opportunities in the military,” he said later, “and when opportunity knocks you get up off your ass and open the door.”
The Army promoted him often, and as a Sergeant First Class, Shachnow entered Officer Candidate School and became commissioned. And kept going up in rank: he volunteered for the Special Forces (aka the Green Berets) in 1962, and commanded the Special Forces’ Detachment A in Vietnam. When he could, he continued his schooling, earning a Bachelor’s in business administration, a Masters of Science in public administration, and graduated from Harvard’s Executive Management Program. And still kept getting promoted, eventually to Major General — the only concentration camp survivor to achieve a General rank. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, Gen. Shachnow was the commander of all American forces in Berlin. He appreciated the irony. “Here it is the very capital of fascism and the Third Reich. 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,” he said. “Here we are 40-some-odd years later, and I come back to be commander of American forces in that city and a Jew on top of that. It sort of adds insult to injury, doesn’t it?” After commanding the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, N.C., Shachnow retired in 1994 after nearly 40 years of service. Along the way he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), the Silver Star (with Oak Leaf Clusters), the Legion of Merit, two Purple Hearts, and more. Gen. Shachnow moved to a horse farm in North Carolina with his high school sweetheart wife, and died on September 28. He was 84.