On Yom Hashoah, story of WWII sergeant who saved hundreds of Jewish POWs illustrates how “choices matter”

Posted on: April 29th, 2017 by tgregory

By Charles Bernsen 

Chris Edmonds speaks with religious school students before the Yom Hashoah ceremony at The Temple on April 23. Roddie’s Code is the organization he runs to inspire “heroic choices” through the story of his father, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds. (Photos by Charles Bernsen)

In his remarks last month at the Nashville community’s annual Yom Hashoah ceremony, Chris Edmonds referred over and over again to the choices large and small that individuals make every day.

“Those choices matter,” the East Tennessee Baptist pastor told several hundred people gathered in the sanctuary at The Temple to remember and honor those who perished in the Holocaust. “Even ordinary people can make extraordinary choices, epic choices, choices that can change the lives of thousands of people.”

His father, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, made such a choice on the morning of Jan. 27, 1945 when, as the highest-ranking soldier in a German POW camp, he defied the camp’s Nazi commandant and saved the lives of about 200 fellow Jewish soldiers. 

The event included a traditional candle-lighting ceremony for holocaust survivors and their descendants like Erin Coleman and her son.

The commandant had ordered Edmonds, a 25-year-old infantryman who had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge less than 40 days earlier, to have only Jewish POWs report for the morning presentation, presumably for deportation to a concentration camp. Instead Edmonds had every one of the nearly 1,300 hundred POWs report, telling the commandant, “We are all Jews.” Even when the commandant held a gun to his head, Edmonds refused to comply. After a few moments, the German officer lowered his weapon and walked away.

“I’m so proud of my father and grateful for the choice he made,” Edmonds said. “My challenge to you is to live like Dad did. Choose right over wrong, good over evil. Stand for the dignity of life.” 

The annual Yom Hashoah commemoration was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. In addition to the presentation by Edmonds, it included a traditional candle-lighting ceremony by Holocaust survivors and their families as well as special readings and prayers led by local clergy. The event ended with the singing of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. 

Roddie Edmonds died in 1985, never having told his family about the remarkable events that had occurred 40 years earlier. His son found out about his father’s heroism only after reading a 2008 article in the New York Times that contained an offhand remark by Lester Tanner, one of the Jewish soldiers his father had saved. After talking to Tanner and others, the younger Edmonds was able to document the story. 

Holocaust survivors Frances Cutler Hahn and her husband, George Hahn, light candles during the Yom Hashoah ceremony.

Last year Roddie Edmonds became 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. With then President Barack Obama in attendance, Chris Edmonds was presented the Righteous medal and certificate by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer on the 71st anniversary of that fateful day. 

Though he father won a number of military decorations and is being considered for the military’s most prestigious award, the Medal of Honor, Edmonds said, “I’m convinced the honor from Israel is the highest Dad will ever receive this side of heaven.” 

Too few people stood up to the evil of anti-Semitism during the Holocaust, Edmonds said. “But today there are millions of Christians like me who love the nation of Israel and we will always stand with you.”

Today, Edmonds heads an organization called Roddie’s Code that seeks to inspire heroes through his father’s story, and in a special presentation to religious school students before the ceremony, he emphasized that, like his father, they have “the power to influence, the power to inspire people to do good” through the choices they make. 

Chris Edmonds (center) was presented with a Jerusalem medallion by Jewish Federation Executive Director Mark S. Freedman and Federation Community Relations Committee Chair Ron Galbraith. “This links the city of our hearts to the city of your heart and the city in which Roddie Edmonds will live forever,” Freedman said.

“And then you will live heroically and do what the Talmud says: Go save your world,” he said. 

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the Yom Hashoah event was when Edmonds showed a short excerpt from a video featuring remarks from several of the Jewish soldiers saved by his father – Tanner and Sidney “Skip” Friedman, both successful lawyers, and Irwin “Sonny” Fix, a successful television executive who hosted the children’s show “Wonderama.” (Friedman died earlier this year.) 

In the video, Tanner recalls that he never saw Roddie Edmonds after their camp was liberated on the second day of Passover in 1945.

“But he has never been out of my mind. It has been the defining experience of my life,” Tanner said. 

With Rabbi Saul Strosberg accompanying on the piano, Cantor Tracy Fishbein sings “Eli, Eli” during the Yom Hashoah ceremony.

Noting that his 18 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren “wouldn’t be here without him,” Tanner added, “He was a righteous man.”

For his part, Chris Edmonds said, “The greatest joy and blessing of my life has been meeting the men my father stood up for. I love these men.” •