The month of August is full of anniversaries related to World War II: the bombing of Hiroshima (8/6/45); the surrender of Japan (8/16/45); the Warsaw Uprising (8/1/44); the liberation of Paris (8/25/44); the capture of Sicily (8/17/43); and the Treblinka Uprising (8/2/43), which I recently wrote about here.
Here’s an anniversary you may not be aware of: August 8, 1985: the death of Master Sergeant Roderick (Roddie) Edmonds, age 65.
Master Sergeant Edmonds is not particularly well known here in the U.S. although he deserves to be—he is the first, and only, U.S. serviceman to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions during World War II (and only the fifth American overall to be so honored).
Born in South Knoxville, TN in 1919, Edmonds enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1941 (i.e., before Pearl Harbor), and had reached the rank of Master Sergeant by late 1944. As a member of the 422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, he arrived in the European combat zone in December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944. Three days later, on December 19, he was captured, along with virtually all the soldiers of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments—over 6,000 prisoners captured in one of the largest mass surrenders in U.S. history. Edmonds was first transported to POW Stalag IX-B, and subsequently moved, along with approximately 1,200 other enlisted Americans, to Stalag IX-A near Ziegenhain, Germany.
Although some of the details vary, it appears that on January 27, 1945, Edmonds was ordered by the camp commandant of Stalag IX-A to tell only Jewish prisoners to report the following morning so that they could be segregated from all the other prisoners. As the senior noncommissioned officer of the camp, Edmonds had overall responsibility for all American prisoners. He refused, ordering all camp prisoners to report instead. Seeing this, the commandant retorted in disbelief that not all the prisoners could be Jewish.
“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.
The commandant then threatened to shoot Edmonds if he did not give up the Jewish soldiers. Edmonds replied: “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”
The commandant backed down, and approximately 200 Jewish soldiers were saved from an uncertain, and possibly deadly, fate as slave laborers.
Edmonds survived captivity, but surprisingly never told his family of his heroic action. Twenty-four years after his death, in 2009, his son Chris came across a New York Times article about former President Richard Nixon’s purchase of a New York City townhouse from a Lester Tanner. In the course of Tanner’s interview, he mentioned that he had been saved from likely death by Roddie Edmonds. This started Chris on an odyssey which led to other Jews who had also been saved, including Irwin (Sonny) Fox, TV personality and former Chair of the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences.
For his actions Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in February 2015, and Chris received the Righteous medal at a ceremony attended by the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and President Barrack Obama.
As Tom Buergenthal has observed in his memoir, A Lucky Child, “What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”
Maybe we’ll never know the answer to that conundrum, but knowing that there are people—like Roddie Edmonds—like Odd Nansen—who did retain the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, should help inspire us all to try and emulate their example.