ON THIS DAY IN 1919, RODDIE EDMONDS WAS BORN NEAR KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE: Almost a century later, in 2015, he was posthumously recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations,” Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
He never told his story to his friends or family. His son learned about it only after his father’s death.
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds’ unit was surrounded by the Nazis during the Battle of Bulge. While they held out as long as they could, they eventually surrendered on December 19, 1944. On January 27, 1945, Edmonds arrived at Stalag IX-A along with well over a thousand fellow POWs, all of them exhausted, dirty, half-starved, cold, and no doubt frightened. As the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer among them, he was in charge.
For reasons I cannot begin to understand, the camp commandant’s first priority was to separate the Jewish from the non-Jewish POWs. Germany’s defeat was all but certain by then; you’d think he’d have given it a rest. Nevertheless, as soon as Edmonds arrived with his men, the commandant ordered Edmonds to assemble all Jewish soldiers the next day so that they could be dealt with separately.
“We are not doing that. We are all falling out,” Edmonds’ men remember him saying to them. So instead, all of the American POWs assembled that morning. The irate commandant held a pistol to Edmond’s head and ordered him to identify the Jews: “They cannot all be Jews!”
“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.
Edmonds told him that if he wanted to kill the Jewish POWs, he was going to have to kill them all. He reminded him that there is such a thing as a war crime and that under the Geneva Conventions name, rank, and serial number are all you get, not religion.
Miraculously, the commandant relented.
The Jewish-American prisoners at the other camp—Stalag IX-B—were not as lucky. It’s not clear what the facts were there. By some accounts, Jewish prisoners were asked to identify themselves and the senior officers there urged cooperation. By other accounts, the Nazis picked out the prisoners who looked Jewish (along with prisoners who were identified as troublemakers). Both stories may be true. In any event, those selected were sent to a slave labor camp where the death rate was horrifically high, despite the fact that the war in Europe lasted only another 3 ½ months.
Jews were only about 2 or 3% of the American population at the time, but they were a higher percentage of the prisoners at Stalag IX-A. Edmonds’ courage is thought to have saved about 200 lives that cold, winter morning. He was then, now, and forever an American hero.