U.S. Army Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds was the highest ranking serviceman in a German POW camp in 1945 when he risked his life to defy the camp commander’s effort to identify Jewish prisoners for likely deportation to a Nazi concentration camp.
Almost as remarkable as Edmonds’ courage is the fact that the Knoxville native never spoke about the episode to anyone, not even his wife.
“I grew up never hearing about it from my father,” said his son, Rev. Chris Edmonds of Maryville, TN. “Dad always declined to share details about his time as a POW.”
Indeed, the story was largely unknown until 2008, almost 25 years after Edmonds’ death, when his son read a 2008 New York Times article that included an innocuous quote from a Jewish veteran, Lester Tanner, who said he owed his life to a young sergeant named Roddie Edmonds. Chris Edmonds tracked down Tanner and other POWs who filled in the details.
Today, Roddie Edmonds is one of only five U.S. servicemen recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, and his son heads an organization called Roddie’s Code that seeks to inspire heroes through his father’s story.
Edmonds will be the featured speaker on Sunday, April 23, at the annual communitywide Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Rememberance Day) commemoration, which is being held this year at The Temple. The event, which is sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, begins at 10 a.m. and is free and open to the public, although those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to Abbie Wolf, the Federation’s director of community relations, at (615) 354-1647 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like previous Holocaust commemorations, it will include a service led by local rabbis and a candle-lighting ceremony involving survivors and their families. Edmonds also will hold a special session with religious school students beforehand.
The Yom Hashoah commemoration leads off a two-week period that includes an observance of Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) on May 1 at Congregation Micah and a communitywide celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) on May 7, which will again take place outdoors at Red Caboose Park in Bellevue.
Chis Edmonds said his father’s story is particularly relevant today in the context an alarming increase in anti-Semitism, even in the heart of western democracies.
“I recently spoke at an Interfaith Shabbat in Chattanooga, and it was powerful,” he said. “There were people of many faith backgrounds including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others. Amazingly we liked each other. We had fun with each other. And most of all we understood and cared about each other.”
Roddie Edmonds had only recently been captured during the Battle of the Bulge when, as the highest ranking POW in stalag IXA, he was ordered to have all Jewish prisoners report for formation the next morning, which everyone presumed would lead to their deportation to a concentration camp.
Instead, Edmonds ordered every POW to report – non-Jews as well as Jews. When the camp commander turned to Edmonds and asked why all the prisoners were standing in front of their barracks, he replied, “We are all Jews.” And when the commander pulled his gun and held it to Edmonds’ head, the sergeant 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 backed down.
Chris Edmonds likes to point out that his father was not the only hero that day. Anyone of the soldiers could have stepped forward to identify a Jewish POW, but none did.
“We must learn what Dad and his men knew. To survive and thrive we must stand together as one,” Edmonds said. “They knew that life and humanity is about all of us and not one of us or some of us.” •