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January 26, 2016 4:35 pm

US Army Officer Among Non-Jewish Honorees at Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony in Washington for ‘Righteous Among the Nations’

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

The gates of the Auschwitz death camp. Yad Vashem honored gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The gates of the Auschwitz death camp. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Four gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during WWII will be honored posthumously on Wednesday at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC.

The ceremony, coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, will recognize these men as “Righteous Among the Nations” — a title awarded by Yad Vashem on behalf of the state of Israel and the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

One such righteous American, NCO (non-commissioned officer) US Army Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee, “could no more have turned 200 of his men over to Nazi persecution than he could stop breathing,” a soldier who served under him told The Algemeiner this week.

Lester Tanner said Edmonds was “defiant in the face of the enemy at the risk of his life.”

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Tanner and Edmonds were taken prisoner by the Germans and placed in a POW camp. Edmonds’ actions in defiance of German officials ended up saving the lives of both Jews and non-Jews at the camp.

In January 1945, the Germans ordered all Jewish inmates in the Stalag at Zegenhain POW camp to report the following morning. Grasping the danger this posed to his fellow Jewish prisoners, Edmonds ordered all the POWs at the camp to report together. When the German officer in charge saw all the camp’s inmates lined up front of their barracks, he said: “They cannot all be Jews.” To this Edmonds responded, “We are all Jews.” Edmonds did not waver, even when the German threatened to shoot him.

“[The Germans] had rifles and sidearms, but we believed they would not use them, knowing their war would be over,” Tanner recalled. “They knew our troops and tanks were breaking through the German lines.”

The German officer finally gave up and left the scene, and the Jewish POWs were saved. Paul Stern, one of the Jews rescued by Edmonds, said, “Although 70 years have passed, I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander.”

An entry in Edmonds’ diary indicates that this event took place on January 27, 1945. The war ended eight months later, in September.

Tanner described Edmonds as a courageous and intrepid man who “did not throw his weight around.”

“His men admired and respected him and followed his orders because of confidence in his command,” he told The Algemeiner. “Off duty he was your warm, happy, smiling friend — your partner in the war to turn the tide and save the world.”

Pastor Chris Edmonds, Roddie’s son, told The Algemeiner that in his father’s diary, written during his confinement in the camp, he wrote about his “Jewish friends.” For example, he wrote, “My boys were very brave and I am proud of them. They obeyed my commands even in the face of death.”

The pastor said he considers the “Righteous Among Nations” honor “an amazing blessing.”

“We are very grateful to Yad Vashem and the nation of Israel for favoring Dad so highly,” he said. “Being named among the ‘Righteous’ is a fitting tribute to a man who lived by a simple faith in God and a sincere love for everyone. We are humbled that he joins a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold the goodness and dignity of humanity.”

Another American citizen who will be given this title on Wednesday is Lois Gunden, a Goshen, Indiana French teacher, who opened a children’s home in Canet Plage, France — which housed a number of Jewish children whom Gunden helped smuggle out of the nearby Rivesaltes internment camp. She kept the children’s home open until she was detained by the Germans in January, 1943. She was released in 1944 as part of a prisoner exchange.

A Polish couple — Walery and Maryla Zbijewski  — will also be honored on Wednesday for hiding a Jewish girl named Elzbieta in their home during the war, though the Germans publicly announced that helping Jews was punishable by death. Elzbieta and her mother fled the Warsaw ghetto before Germans deported its inhabitants to the Treblinka concentration camp, where they were murdered. The Zbijewskis hid Elzbieta in their home until her mother was able to rent an apartment under a false name and take her daughter back.

Individuals recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” are awarded a medal, a certificate of honor and the addition of their name to the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Wednesday’s event constitutes the first time a ceremony honoring Americans ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ is taking place in the United States.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer will be speaking there.

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