On the last night of Hanukkah it is good to remind ourselves of our shared humanity. In a world where people and debate are often defined by labels and a narrow sectarianism pervades political debate let us instead look at the example of a U.S. soldier has been honoured for saving around 200 Jewish prisoners of war from being killed by the Nazis.
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, passed away in 1985. Pastor Chris Edmonds, his younger son, recalls that his father didn’t speak much about his wartime experiences. As a young adult, Chris found out that his father had spent time as a POW, but little else was revealed. It was only when one of Chris’ daughters undertook a project at college to create a video about a family member that his mother, Roddie’s wife, handed her granddaughter a diary Roddie had kept during his imprisonment at Stalag IXA. She also revealed a brief account of parts of his life that Roddie had written before he died.
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds led a revolt against Nazi instructions to identify Jews under his command after he was taken prisoner in the dying days of the Second World War. Edmonds was one of around 1,000 soldiers taken to the Stalag IXA camp Ziegenhain, Germany, after the Battle of the Bulge.
Inside the camp, Nazi soldiers tried to sort the Jewish prisoners from everyone else, which would almost certainly end in their death. But rather than comply, Edmonds ordered his men to refuse their instructions, declaring: ‘We are all Jews here’. In recognition of his bravery, he has been awarded the highest honour by Israel’s Holocaust memorial. Nazi leaders had told the Jewish soldiers to assemble outside their barracks one morning, to be taken to labour camps where they would almost certainly die.
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But Edmonds, of Knoxville, Tennessee, ordered the entire contingent of 1,000 U.S. servicemen to join them, saying the Nazis had to kill all of them or none. He would not waver, even with a pistol to his head, and his captors eventually backed down. Edmonds didn’t budge pointing out that POW’s only were obliged to give their name, rank and serial number to their captors. His brave gambit worked. The Nazi official backed down and around 200 Jewish soldiers stayed in captivity with the others until they were liberated.
Seventy years later, the Knoxville, 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. He’s the first American serviceman to earn the honour. “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, only discovered long after his father’s death in 1985. But it was only while scouring the Internet a few years ago that he began to unravel the true drama that had unfolded — 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 exclusive upper East Side 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 27 January, 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,” recalled Chris Edmonds, who is currently in Israel participating in a seminar for Christian leaders at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
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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.
As the eight night of Hanukkah draws to a close and the eight candle is lit on the Menorah it is right to remind ourselves of Sir Nicholas Winton, Oskar and Emilie Schindler, Selahattin Ülkümen, Prince Phillip’s mother Princess Alice of Battenberg, Miep Gies, Raoul Wallenberg and the many others who in the face of the clear evil of The Shoah like Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds also said “We are all Jews here.”