(Edmonds was born a century ago today.)
A nightmare for every Jewish GI serving in the European Theater of Operations was to be captured by the Nazis. For a group of American Jewish POWs on January 27, 1945, their worst nightmares seemed about to come true. The previous day Commandant of Stalag IXA, Major Siegmann, had ordered that the Jews among the thousand American POWs report outside their barracks the next morning. Their probable grim fate could be imagined. Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of the 422nd Infantry Regiment, a resident of Tennessee, was the ranking NCO at the camp and he was not going to allow the Nazis to murder some of his men. He ordered every American in the camp to show up outside the barracks, and informed the astonished Commandant that they were all Jews. The Commandant exclaimed that they could not all be Jews and took out his pistol. Edmonds remained calm: “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.” The Commandant turned around and stalked off. No further attempts were made by him to get his hands on the Jewish GIs.
Edmonds died in 1985. He never told his son about his act of heroism, his son finding about it in a New York Times story about Richard Nixon’s search for a home in New York after his resignation. One man who helped him was attorney Lester J. Tanner. As an aside in the story this was mentioned: As a G.I. in World War II, Mr. Tanner had been taken prisoner by the Germans and was being held in the Ziegenhein stalag in January 1945, when the Nazi commandant demanded at gunpoint to know which of the American soldiers were Jews. As. Mr. Tanner recalled it, their brave officer, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, defied the camp commander, saying the Geneva Convention forbade the request, and Mr. Tanner and his fellow prisoners were spared, to be liberated shortly afterward.
Edmonds has now become the first American soldier to be honored for saving Jews at the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Israel. His heroism was inspiring, his modesty about what he did equally so. I assume he probably thought that he was just doing his duty and that there was nothing special about what he did. In a certain sense that is true. However there is a vast difference between knowing the right thing to do, and doing it when the cost of doing the right thing may cause us to sacrifice our lives.