JERUSALEM (JTA) — Roddie Edmonds, an Army sergeant who prevented the deaths of fellow Jewish soldiers at a German POW camp during World War II, has become the first member of the American military ecognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.
“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 Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, in announcing the honor on Dec. 2. “These attributes form the common thread that binds members of this select group of Righteous Among the Nations. 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.”
Edmonds, a resident of Knoxville, TN, who died in 1985, becomes one of only five Americans to be recognized as a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem. The others are Varian Fry, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, and Lois Gunden.
Edmonds was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. In January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish POWs in the camp, Stalag IXA, were to report the following morning, likely to be sent to Nazi extermination camps or murdered.
The highest-ranking solider in the American section of the camp, Edmonds ordered all of his men to fall out the following morning – Jews and non-Jews. When the German camp commander saw that all the camp’s prisoners were standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!”
Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews.”
The camp commander took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, who gave his name, rank and serial number as required by the Geneva Convention and said, “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”
The commander turned and left.
One of the Jewish POWs, Paul Stern, recounted the incident to officials with Yad Vashem. He recalled it occurred in English.
“Although 70 years have passed,” Stern said, “I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander.”
Lester Tanner, another Jewish soldier who was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, told Yad Vashem that there were more than 1,000 American soldiers standing in wide formation in front of the barracks with Edmonds.
“There was no question in my mind, or that of Master Sergeant Edmonds, that the Germans were removing the Jewish prisoners from the general prisoner population at great risk to their survival,” Tanner said. “Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”
Edmonds’ son, Pastor Chris Edmonds, who heads a Baptist congregation in Maryville, TN, is currently in Israel participating in a seminar sponsored by Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies for Christian leaders.
More than 26,000 individuals have received the honor of Righteous Among the Nations. Edmonds also is being considered for a Congressional Medal of Honor, according to the Associated Press.