NEW YORK — In a singular act of humanity and defiance, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds stood up to a German commandant and saved 200 American Jewish GIs from transportation to a slave labor camp.
It was 1945 and Edmonds had been a prisoner of war in Stalag IX-A, a German POW camp for less than a month. As the highest-ranking officer there, he was responsible for the camp’s 1,292 American POWs – 200 of whom were Jewish.
Throughout the war, the Wehrmacht either murdered Jewish soldiers captured on the Eastern Front or sent them to extermination camps. Jewish soldiers captured on the Western Front could be sent to Berga, a slave labor camp where survival rates were dismal.
Because of this policy the US military told its Jewish soldiers that if they were captured they should destroy evidence of their faith, such as dog tags, which were stamped with the letter H for Hebrew, or personal prayer books that some soldiers carried.
Edmonds, who died in 1985, never spoke about the story. In fact, had it not been for his granddaughter’s college assignment many decades later, the officer’s story might have remained forever untold. But thanks to the subsequent persistence of Edmonds’ son, Pastor Chris Edmonds, the heroic story surfaced.
On Monday night the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous posthumously honored Edmonds with its “Yehi Or” (Let There Be Light) Award.
To understand why Edmonds never spoke about his courage — not to his wife, his children, nor to his grandchildren — is to understand something about the man himself.
“He was a man of faith. He never bragged on anything but God. Well, maybe his sons sometimes,” said Edmonds in a telephone interview days before he was scheduled to accept the award on his father’s behalf at The New York Public Library.
JFR chairman Harvey Schulweis also noted Edmonds’ humility.
“Over the years we have worked with and honored many Holocaust survivors and their rescuers, but the story of Roddie Edmonds saving 200 Jewish-American soldiers truly distinguishes the man and leader he was. Though unfortunately we were not privileged enough to honor him during his lifetime, we hope that this year’s Yehi Ohr Award will show the gratitude and appreciation that our nation has on behalf of his heroic actions that day,” JFR chairman Harvey Schulweis said.
Several of the surviving Jewish GIs Edmonds saved attended the private event.
Edmonds landed in Europe in the autumn of 1944 with the 106th Infantry Division, and then fought his way to the Belgian-German border as part of the 422nd Infantry Regiment.
On December 16, he found himself involved in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. On December 17, he had his last hot meal.
“Believe me when I tell you we really had to keep our heads down. This was no picnic,” Edmonds wrote in his wartime diary.
Though outgunned and outmanned, the Americans delayed the Germans long enough to allow General George Patton’s Third Army to ultimately come to the rescue.
‘Believe me when I tell you we really had to keep our heads down. This was no picnic’
But the rescue came too late for the 422nd regiment; Germany’s Second SS Panzer Division encircled them, and on December 19, Edmonds became one of thousands of Americans taken prisoner.
“We surrendered to avoid slaughter. We were marched without food and water, except for the few sugar beets we found along the road and puddles,” the 25-year-old wrote in his diary shortly after being transported to the camp which held upwards of 50,000 Allied soldiers near Ziegenhain.
As the highest-ranking office there, Edmonds, responsible for the camp’s 1,292 American POWs, relied on his faith and sense of duty to keep the men safe and to keep morale as high as possible, said his son Chris.
One day in January 1945, a month after his capture, the Germans ordered all Jewish POWs to report outside their barracks the following morning. Edmonds knew what awaited the Jewish men under his command, so he decided to resist the directive. He ordered all his men — Jews and non-Jews alike — to fall out the following morning.
Upon seeing all the soldiers lined up, the camp’s commandant, Major Siegmann, approached Edmonds. He ordered Edmonds to identify the Jewish soldiers.
“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds said.
Irate, the commandant jammed his pistol against Edmonds’ head and repeated the order. Again, Edmonds refused.
‘We are all Jews here’
“According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give 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,” Edmonds had said, according to one of the men saved that day.
The younger Edmonds regards all 1,292 men as heroes.
“When Dad got the orders and told his men that they were not giving up the Jewish soldiers, they could have said no,” he said. “When the commandant pressed the gun against my father some of the men could have pointed out the Jews. None of them did that. They all stood together.”
“What he did [that morning] sent an incredible bolt of hope through the men. They saw they could resist. They saw they could survive,” Edmonds said.
After 100 days of captivity and near-starvation, the elder Edmonds returned to his home near Knoxville, Tennessee. He found work at Oakridge National Labs, and then, because he had joined the National Guard, he was again deployed, this time to Korea. He came home, married, and had two sons. He coached their baseball teams and worked in sales.
He spoke little of his wartime experience and nothing of that day.
‘I asked him about it several times as a teenager and in college. He’d say “Son, there are just some things I’d rather not talk about”‘
“I asked him about it several times as a teenager and in college. He’d say ‘Son, there are just some things I’d rather not talk about,’ and tell us to read the diary,” Edmonds said.
They remained in the dark until several years ago when one of son Chris Edmonds’ daughters started working on a college assignment that required her to make a video about a family member. Her grandmother gave her the diary her husband Roddie had kept during his time as a POW.
The JFR award comes just a year after Edmonds became the only American soldier, and one of just five Americans, named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem. He is also the only Righteous Among Nations to have saved American Jews.
Edmonds, “was a leader who wouldn’t ask his men to do anything he wouldn’t do,” said son Chris.
“This story is a clarion call to love one another regardless of our choices, or faith. He stood against oppression. He stood for decency. He stood for humanity. This thing we call life — it’s about all of us, not one of us,” Edmonds said.
“This award is called ‘Let There Be Light.’ Dad would light up a room,” said Edmonds. “When he left you would wish he were still there.”