In a German prison camp over seven decades ago, one man did the unthinkable. Staring down the barrel of his Nazi captor’s pistol, this American soldier refused to identify which of his fellow prisoners of war were Jewish.
His act of defiance would save nearly 200 Jews and earn him, posthumously, the Righteous Among Nations Award. It’s an honor granted by Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance and education center, Yad Vashem, to non-Jews who risked their lives saving Jews during the Holocaust. Only five Americans have earned the distinction, and only one was an American soldier. His name, which many unfortunately don’t know, is Master Sergeant Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds.
The most remarkable part of his story wasn’t his heroism — it was his humility. It turns out Edmonds never told anyone about what he did when he returned home. He didn’t hire an agent. There was no book deal. He just returned and tried his best to live a normal life in small-town USA.
Not even his son Chris, now a pastor in Tennessee, knew what his father had done.
“I asked him several times and as I got older, ‘Dad, tell me about your experience in the army as a POW, tell me about that,’ and he would say, ‘Son, there are some things that are just too difficult to share, so I’d just rather not,'” Chris Edmonds told “Our American Stories.”
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds died in August of 1985, and he took his secrets about the war to his grave. It would take 20-plus years for his son to discover his father’s remarkable story.
In 2009, Chris Edmonds watched a short video his daughter produced for a college assignment about her grandfather’s service in WWII, and he decided then and there that he needed to know more about his father’s wartime experiences.
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He Googled his father to see what would turn up and stumbled upon his name in a story about a home President Richard Nixon purchased in the 1970s from a man named Richard M. Tanner. Near the end of that article, Tanner made reference to the fact that he’d been saved from certain death at a POW camp during World War II thanks to the actions of one man: Roddie Edmonds.
Chris Edmonds was startled at first, and then he did what any son would do — he tracked down Tanner and pieced together the rest of his father’s incredible story.
“He was a part of the Battle of the Bulge, and he was in the 106th division, 422nd regiment. They were sent to replace the men on the front lines, and got there sometime in December of 1944,” Chris Edmonds explained of his father. “On December 17th of 1944, that’s when the German forces began to move against the American and Allied forces. Basically, they were overwhelmed and overpowered because they were caught by surprise. My dad was captured on December 19th. Most of that regiment were either captured or killed.”
“My dad was captured on December 19th. Most of that regiment were either captured or killed.”
The Nazis put Master Sgt. Edmonds and the 1,200-plus soldiers he commanded into a camp and then into a second camp called Stalag IXA near Ziegenhain in western Germany.
His son continued the story:
In this particular district, camps intentionally segregated the Jewish GIs, sending them to labor camps, and most of the men that were sent to those camps did not survive. And of course, that was against the Geneva Convention. When they got to that camp, my dad, because of his rank, became the senior commander of the camp.
One day, they got an announcement over the loudspeaker that asked that only the Jewish POWs fall out for the morning roll call. Lester Tanner told me that my dad immediately said, ‘We are not going to do that.’ And he sent orders throughout the barracks to have all the men fall out the next morning.
So the next morning, all the soldiers and POWs fell out. There were approximately 1,275 men, and they were all standing there before the barracks and Lester says that the commandant came over to my dad and was furious and said, ‘All of you can’t be Jews.’ Then Paul Stern, who was also there standing close by, said that my dad responded, ‘We are all Jews here.’
The commandant was very angry that this American had the audacity to disobey an order. He said, ‘I am asking you to command your Jewish men to step forward.’ My dad’s response was simply this, ‘According to the Geneva Convention all that is required is name, rank and serial number.’ That again infuriated the commandant, who was a Major.
He pulled his gun out of his holster and pressed it to my dad’s forehead and said, ‘You will have your Jewish men step forward immediately or I will shoot you on the spot.’ Lester Tanner said that my dad said, ‘Major, if you shoot me, you will have to shoot us all.’ And then my dad added some more, ‘We know who you are and when we win this war you will have to stand for war crimes.’
Tanner said that the major blanched and turned blood red and for what seemed like a very long time, but wasn’t, stuck his gun in his holster and turned and walked away. They all went back into the barracks and cheered my father.
“What stands out for me are Roddie’s words and the surprise that we were saved,” Lester Tanner told The New York Times in 2016. He was 92 at the time. (go to page 2 to continue reading)[lz_pagination]