Maj. Gen. Shachnow speaks frankly

“During the time I was on active duty, I thought I was indestructible,” retired Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow told about 250 people gathered Sunday night at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus in Scottsdale.

But almost immediately upon his retirement from the service, he underwent a series of health issues that made him consider telling his story — a journey from the concentration camp to the upper echelon of the United States Army. Like many Holocaust survivors, he said, he had been silent about his wartime experiences for 40 years. His youngest daughter insisted that he had an amazing story to tell, and told him, “If you don’t put pen to paper, that story goes with you.”

So he wrote, with the help of Jann Robbins (wife of potboiler author, Harold), “Hope and Honor,” a book-length memoir published in 2006. “Simply said, I wanted to be remembered,” he said of writing the book, which formed the basis for his presentation at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Passages lecture series on Sunday night. Drawing some laughs, he told the audience there would be no need to buy the book once they heard him speak. He leavened his talk with humor and always spoke frankly, sometimes saltily, about incidents in his life or broader historic moments he encountered.

A native of Kaunas, Lithuania, Shachnow explained how his parents, who were educated in Germany, could not believe the reports of what would turn out to be the Holocaust and thus did not leave Lithuania. He explained, too, how the words “ghetto,” “work camp” and “concentration camp” were meaningless distinctions to those who experienced them — what was originally designated by the Germans as the Jewish ghetto in Kaunas became the Kovno concentration camp. Life, particularly the privation and suffering, in these places was the same, he said.

Within a short time after Kaunas’ 40,000 Jews were consigned to the ghetto and it became legal to kill Jews, nationalist Lithuanians had killed about 10,000 of them. By the end of the war, 2,000 survived, including Shachnow and his family.

Shachnow was smuggled out of the concentration camp after three years, and eventually was reunited with his immediate family after the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army.  He and his family came to the United States in the 1950s, finding a nearly alien world that the young man, who hadn’t gone to school before coming here, quickly adapted  to. He mentioned his lack of education in relation to his wanting to get married almost as soon as he met his future wife, Arlene. “I had a paper route,” he said, but no other means or skills to support a married life. To his parents, that was a sign of the couple’s lack of maturity, but they opposed the marriage for another reason, Arlene was Catholic, and at that time, he pointed out, that was a very big deal. They’ve been married ever since.

(Later, in a question-and-answer session, he was asked if any of his children consider themselves Jewish. He said, unblinkingly, “They consider themselves Jewish, but they don’t practice.”)

The army sent him to school and he was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1960, and in 1962, he entered the Green Berets and served in the special forces for 32 years. Today, his large family includes several military officers serving in Afghanistan and Korea.

Shachnow spoke philosophically of his time as commander of U.S. forces in Berlin, when his counterpart in the Soviet quarter of the city pointed out the irony that he had been liberated by the Soviets but now was in a U.S. uniform ready to fight them. In contrast, there was a much-sweeter irony — what he called Nemesis, after the Greek goddess of retribution — in his Berlin command. His 32-room residence had been the home of the Nazis’ finance minister, and his command headquarters had been the headquarters of Hermann Goering, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.

The Holocaust is often described in terms of perpetrators and victims, he said, but the most important role was played by bystanders, who did nothing as the Final Solution was put into practice. By not acting to question or stop it, the bystanders were complicit in the evil. “They could have changed history he said.” Reflecting on this, he said that he has concluded, “There is evil in all of us. It’s a matter of degrees.”

In response to questions, he said that he didn’t personally experience any anti-Semitism in the Army, although he heard people use Jew as a verb to describe negotiating to get a price down. He said he realized they simply didn’t know any better and meant nothing by it. He added, “I didn’t hide my Jewishness. Everybody knew I was Jewish.”

The thorniest questions came at the end, when Aaron Scholar, the BJE’s director, asked whether the U.S. government understands Islam and the threat that Islamists present to the nation. Shachnow said that the government pretty much knows the threat but in the name of political correctness won’t “call a spade a spade.” He pointed to the 2009 Fort Hood killings when Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, a Muslim, is accused of having shot to death 13 people and wounded 29 others and wondered how it could not be considered a case of Islamist terrorism.

When he was asked whether he had seen anything as bad as the Holocaust in his own military experience, he described the My Lai massacre conducted by American soldiers in Vietnam, in which villagers – including mostly women and children – were indiscriminately slaughtered. “War dulls our sensitivities and consciousness,” Shachnow said, adding that humanity hasn’t really learned anything from the Holocaust. “Atrocities are taking place today.”

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