On a cold January morning in 1945, as the advancing Allied armies were vanquishing the remains of the Third Reich, a Nazi major stood before some 1,000 U.S. troops at the Stalag IX-A POW camp in western Germany. The previous night an announcement over the barracks intercom had commanded all the captured Jewish soldiers — only the Jews — to assemble for the morning’s roundup.
Nearly all the U.S. prisoners, from the 422nd Infantry Brigade, a thousand or more, mustered in the open field.
“They cannot all be Jews,” the major said to Master Sgt. Roderick Edmonds, the highest-ranking U.S. non-commissioned officer there.
“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds declared. He had told all the U.S. troops to report for the roundup.
The major pressed his Luger pistol against Edmonds’ forehead. “I’ll give you one more chance. Have the Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.”
Edmonds, a stocky, wavy-haired Methodist from Tennessee with a strong Southern twang, was silent for a few seconds. Then he spoke: “According to the Geneva Convention, we have to give only our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”
The major, enraged, walked away. And the lives of 200 Jewish soldiers were saved.
Edmonds — who died in 1985, and was known to his friends as Roddie — was posthumously named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in January, on the 71st anniversary of his heroic deed, at a ceremony in the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He became the first U.S. soldier to receive the designation for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, and the fifth U.S. citizen named a Righteous Gentile.
Now, a group of admirers of Edmonds, including his son, Chris, a Baptist pastor, and a few soldiers who served under Edmonds, are lobbying to have him also receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
“So many Jews and so many Israelis think that gentiles, that the rest of the world, don’t care about them,” said Lawrence Goldstein, partner in a Larchmont investment firm who has joined the effort to have Edmonds honored. Edmonds, he said, “was a gentile who cared enough to risk his own life.”
While most of the Nazis’ death camps had been liberated by early 1945, slave labor camps, where Jews were being worked to death, still were operating.
“The persecution [of Jews] went on until the last moment of the war,” said Irina Steinfeldt, director of Yad Vashem’s Department for the Righteous Among the Nations (the official designation of the men and women commonly known as Righteous Gentiles). “Jewish POWs were in danger because they were Jews.”
Edmonds’ story “is very unusual — but every story” of non-Jews who rescued Jews in the Shoah “is unusual,” said Steinfeldt. “I’m sure that he was aware that the risk” he took by contradicting a Nazi commander’s order “was enormous.”
Edmonds’ story was not known until recent years, beyond the soldiers in his wartime unit, because he never told anyone what he had done.
“I knew he was in the Army. I knew he was a POW. I knew the basic stuff,” said his son. In a diary Edmonds had kept during the war, he wrote only the enigmatic words: “before the commander.”
“I knew he would try to protect us,” said Upper East Side resident Lester Tanner, who at 92 is still a practicing attorney. As a sergeant, he stood at Edmonds’ side that fateful morning. “He was a normal guy,” not arrogant [like] the other sergeants. “You felt he was on your side.”
“He had a strong faith in God, from his teenage years. He had a strong moral code,” Chris Edmonds said.
An estimated 2,000 descendants of those 200 POWs are now alive. One of them was Irwin “Sonny” Fox, host of the 1960s “Wonderama” children’s television program, who says that Edmonds “saved our lives.”
What would Edmonds say about the attention being paid today to his actions?
“He would probably say, ‘I was just doing my job,’” Chris Edmonds said.