Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds is being honored by Israel with its highest honor for non-Jews for risking his life to save Jews during World War II. He will be the first U.S. serviceman to receive the honor.
The AP reports that Edmonds, while a prisoner of war following the Battle of the Bulge, ordered over 1,000 fellow POWs to declare themselves to be Jews when their Nazi captors began separating the Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers on Jan. 27, 1945, at the Stalag IXA POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.
When the camp commander ordered the Jewish soldiers to identify themselves, Edmonds and all his other soldiers stood up, knowing that the Germans would likely execute those who identified as Jews. The camp commander said, "They cannot all be Jews" to which Edmonds replied, "We are all Jews here."
Edmonds' son tells NPR that the German commander became "enraged" after Edmonds refused to identify any Jewish soldiers:
"[The German commander] turned blood-red, pulled his Luger out, pressed it into the forehead of my dad, and said, 'I'll give you one more chance. Have the Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot,' " Edmonds said.
"They said my dad paused, and said, 'If you shoot, you'll have to shoot us all.' "
The officer backed down.
In announcing that Edmonds would be receiving the "Righteous Among the Nations" distinction 30 years after his death, Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, said:
Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds seemed like an ordinary American soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings. The choices and actions of Master Sgt. Edmonds set an example for his fellow American soldiers as they stood united against the barbaric evil of the Nazis.
Irena Steinfeldt, the director of the Holocaust memorial's Righteous Among the Nations department, told the AP that these were the unique actions of a man determined to make a moral decision, quickly.
"When he tells the German, 'No,' that is something that can kill him," she explained. "It is something very dangerous that is happening in one moment. … But it is very heroic."
Some 26,000 others have received the "Righteous Among the Nations" designation, including Oskar Schindler, but only four other Americans have been so honored. Those were all clergy or rescue group workers, making Edmonds the first serviceman. According to his son, the late Edmonds is now being considered for a Congressional Medal of Honor as well.
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