Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds
(Photo: Yad Vashem)
By Aron Heller
THE NAZI officers made their orders very clear: Jewish American prisoners of war were to be separated from their fellow soldiers and sent to an uncertain fate.
But Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds would have none of that. As the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer held in the German POW camp, he ordered more than 1,000 American captives to step forward with him and brazenly pronounced: “We are all Jews here.”
He would not waver, even with a pistol to his head, and his captors eventually backed down.
Seventy years later, the Tennessee native is being posthumously recognized with Israel’s highest honour for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.
“Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds seemed like an ordinary American soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial. “The choices and actions of Master Sgt. Edmonds set an example for his fellow American soldiers as they stood united against the barbaric evil of the Nazis.”
It’s a story that remained untold for decades and one that his son, the Rev. Chris Edmonds, a Baptist minister, only discovered long after his father’s death in 1985.
Edmonds was captured with thousands of others in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and spent 100 days in captivity. His son vaguely knew about his father’s past from a pair of diaries Edmonds kept in captivity that included the names and addresses of his men.
But it was only while scouring the Internet a few years ago that he began to unravel the true drama – oddly enough, when he read a newspaper article about Richard Nixon’s post-presidency search for a New York home. As it happened, Nixon purchased his town house from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York lawyer who mentioned in passing how Edmonds had saved him and dozens of other Jews during the war.
That sparked a search for Tanner, who along with another Jewish POW, Paul Stern, told the younger Edmonds what they witnessed on Jan. 27, 1945, at the Stalag IXA POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.
The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jew policy and segregated Jewish POWs from non-Jews. On the eastern front, captured Jewish soldiers in the Russian army had been sent to extermination camps.
At the time of Edmonds’ capture, the most infamous Nazi death camps were no longer fully operational, so Jewish American POWs were instead sent to slave labour camps where their chances of survival were low. US soldiers had been warned that Jewish fighters among them would be in danger if captured and were told to destroy dog tags or any other evidence identifying them as Jewish.
So when the German camp commander, speaking in English, ordered the Jews to identify themselves, Edmonds knew what was at stake.
Turning to the rest of the POWs, he said: “We are not doing that, we are all falling out.”
With all the camp’s inmates defiantly standing in front of their barracks, the German commander turned to Edmonds and said: “They cannot all be Jews.” To which Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews here.”
Then the Nazi officer pressed his pistol to Edmonds’ head and offered him one last chance. Edmonds merely gave him his name, rank and serial number as required by the Geneva Conventions.
“And then my dad said: ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war’,” recalled Chris Edmonds, who estimates his father’s actions saved the lives of more than 200 Jewish-American soldiers.
Witnesses said the German officer then withdrew. Stern said that even 70 years later he can “still hear the words.”
Irena Steinfeldt, the director of the Holocaust memorial’s Righteous Among the Nations department, said Edmonds’ actions were reflective of those of a military man, who was prepared to take a quick, clear, moral decision.
“It’s a matter of five minutes and that is it. When he tells the German, ‘No,’ that is something that can kill him,” she explained. “It is something very dangerous that is happening in one moment. … But it is very heroic.”
Chris Edmonds said he believed his father had a “deep moral conviction,” instilled by his faith, that inspired his actions. “All he had to fight with was his will power and his wits,” he said. “I’m just glad he did the right thing.” TAP –The Associated Press