Power of Perseverance: a story of survival, courage, and love

The life story of Sidney Shachnow

Power of Perseverance

Sometimes life can be a challenge. People who overcome adversity inspire us to face our challenges. The power of perseverance is an essential ingredient in facing challenges and for human progress. Sydney Shachnow is an inspirational example of a man who demonstrated the power of perseverance over a lifetime.

Sidney Shachnow was born in Kaunas, Lithuania and raised in a Jewish family. From the ages of seven to ten, Nazis imprisoned him in the Kovno concentration camp during World War II. The camp was a ghetto initially housing over 40,000 Jewish families. Only 5% of the people survived the camp once it was liberated by the Russians in 1944.

Major General Sidney Shachnow power of perseverance

Major General Sidney Shachnow

Imprisonment and separation

Nazis imprisoned his family and friends in the Kovno camp. Through the power of perseverance, Shachnow endured countless brutalities over the course of three years. He watched helplessly as almost every single one of his extended family and his friends were slaughtered. To increase his chances of survival, Shachnow performed heavy manual labor under harsh conditions at a very young age. After several years, his father escaped while on a work detail and joined Russian partisans.

A narrow escape from death

Shachnow and his brother narrowly escaped death only days before Kovno’s gruesome “Children’s Action,” of March 27–28, 1944. Nazi troops rounded up all the children in the camp and marched them to The Ninth Fort for execution or to Auschwitz to be gassed. His mother smuggled his younger brother out of the camp and arranged for his care with a sea captain and his family. Shachnow escaped with his mother’s help. He lived in hiding for months in a small room with little food. He nearly died from starvation and malnutrition. Near death, his mother set up his care with a family in Kaunas. Once her children were in safekeeping, Shachnow’s mother escaped while on work detail and reunited with her sons.

Struggle for survival

The Soviets liberated Lithuania from the Nazis and began to implement Communism. The family returned to Kaunas only to find that the Soviet Army took their home. Unable to resume their lives in Lithuania, Shachnow, his brother and mother fled. They endured a 2,000 mile, six-month journey across Europe mostly on foot. The journey took them across Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, and finally to American occupied Nuremberg, Germany. To make a living in war-torn Nuremberg, Shachnow worked as a courier pirating black-market contraband. Schanow reunited with his father after a couple of years, and the family obtained visas to the United States.

Rebirth in a new country

Shachnow attended school for the first time in his life at age 16 once he arrived in the U.S. He faced incredible odds with lack of schooling and the language barrier. The power of perseverance enabled him to adjust to high school and his new environment. After working his way through school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and married his high school sweetheart, Arlene.

Career of service

Shachnow promoted quickly in the Army to Sergeant First Class. Once he became a U.S. citizen, he entered Officer Candidate School and received his commission in the U.S. Army. He volunteered for the U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as the “Green Berets,” where he served for the next thirty-two years until his retirement in 1994.

Special Forces Unit Crest

True grit

After joining Special Forces, the Army promoted Shachnow to Captain and assigned him as Commander of Detachment A-121. The unit deployed to Vietnam’s An Long Camp near the Cambodian border along the Mekong River. Shachnow earned his first Silver Star for combat action there as well as a Purple Heart. He was shot in the leg and the arm. After being shot, he applied a tourniquet to his leg and continued to lead and care for his men in battle. He recovered from his wounds and returned home only to learn that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis virus, typhoid virus, and several other illnesses in which he fully recovered.

Self-development and recognition

After recovering, Shachnow earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska, and the Army promoted him to Major. He couldn’t attend the graduation ceremonies; he received deployment orders for his second tour to Vietnam. The Army assigned Shachnow to the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, where he earned his second Silver Star for gallantry in action after nearly escaping death several times.

Cold War service

Shachnow continued his Army career after the Vietnam War. He served as Commander of Detachment-A, Berlin Brigade, a clandestine unit of Cold War Green Beret commandos on high alert 24-hours a day. This covert unit consisted of selectively trained and language qualified members of Special Forces, who brought vital culture, geographical and language skills to the assignment. Their missions were classified. They dressed in civilian clothing and carried appropriate non-American documentation and identification at terrific risk if they were caught by Soviet or East German security forces.

Strategic leadership

Shachnow’s status grew as Special Forces grew, rising to the rank of Major General (two stars). His notable assignments include Commanding General, United States Army Special Forces Command, Airborne; Commanding General, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Airborne; and Commanding General, U.S. Army-Berlin.

Example through action

Shachnow endured and experienced the absolute worst in humankind. His life informs us that the power of perseverance can overcome great odds. His life’s work is supported by love: love for his family, love for his fellow human beings, and love for his country. He and his wife raised four daughters with a challenging military lifestyle. Yet, Shachnow’s family grew to fourteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He is a man who truly understands freedom because he knows what freedom means more than many of our citizens. He knows the price of freedom and that it must be protected. His story represents the best of the human race, and the boundless opportunities life can offer. A destitute immigrant to the U.S., he has through the power of perseverance, hard work, and talent rise to the highest level of his profession in one of the most competitive fields in the U.S.

Perseverance for good

Major General Shachnow demonstrated the power of perseverance over a lifetime. Like most other virtues, persistence and perseverance cannot operate for good in the world in isolation of conventional wisdom. Given the right context, occurring in the right combination with other virtues, the power of perseverance is an essential ingredient in human progress. Major General Shachnow stated, “I had seen the world change, dramatically, and suffer[ed] many triumphs and many failures. Oppression was still an enemy. But I realized how important it was to keep hope, courage, and perseverance, and we would someday erase this scourge from society.”


How do we encourage the power of perseverance with our children? How do we encourage efforts to improve ourselves and others? There are many ways to go about doing this. Here are a few thoughts:
Stand by, with and behind people who need support
Be a coach and a cheerleader
Be an example through action

What are your thoughts on the power of perseverance?

Read the full story, Hope and Honor: A Memoir of a Soldier’s Courage and Survival by Sidney Shachnow

You can read his full military biography here.

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