The unsung righteous gentile

Son of Baptist pastor uncovers decades later that his father risked his life to save Jews,

Wall of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Wall of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Regardless of how close we are to any of our relatives or friends, there is much that we don't know about them and never thought to ask until it was too late. That's what happened to Baptist Pastor Chris Edmonds when one of his daughters received a school assignment to write a family history.
When discussing the assignment with his daughter, he suggested that she write about his father, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who was the youngest master sergeant in the US Army during World War II.
Roddie Edwards had been long dead when his granddaughter decided to write about him, but he left two diaries about his wartime experiences. Chris Edmonds had read the diaries after his father's death, but at that time, he was simply satisfied to know that his father had been a good Christian and a loyal American soldier who had survived the war. It was only when he read the diaries again while his daughter worked on her assignment that questions began popping into his head. He could not forgive himself for not having asked those questions when his father was alive, and so he went on a quest of his own to see what he could discover.
He googled his father's name and where in Europe his father Roddie had fought. Edmonds expected that if anything were to come up, it would be on a military records file.
But he found it unexpectedly as a side-bar to a New York Times article about a real estate transaction involving disgraced former president Richard Nixon. It was mentioned by a Jewish lawyer who sold a property to Nixon and whose life – and those of some 200 other Jewish soldiers – had been saved when they were POWs in Europe with Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds as their senior officer.
AT A time when America is being rocked by ultra-nationalism and increasing waves of antisemitism, No Surrender, which documents the World War II experiences of Roddie Edmonds, who has been posthumously honored by Yad Vashem and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is a must-read book. Some Nazis completely ignored the Geneva Convention, which provides internationally accepted rules of war, choosing to torture and dismember captive American soldiers of color, or mowing down POWs and civilians carrying white flags. They killed for the sake of killing. It was much more efficient than having to provide primitive living quarters and meager rations for prisoners.
While Edmonds did not seek out the Jewish lawyer, Lester Tanner, the Jewish lawyer, found him after Edmonds left a comment online. Tanner hosted Edmonds, his wife and grandson at the Harvard Club in New York.
After that, there were many meetings between the two men, and between Edmonds and other Jewish and non-Jewish GI veterans whose lives had been saved by his father.
Edmonds became obsessive about World War II history, the Holocaust, the segregation of Black American soldiers who were fighting abroad for democracy when it was denied them in their own country, the bestial cruelty of the SS and the camaraderie of American servicemen of different faiths.
The result is a data-filled history book laced with brief but descriptive biographies that introduce the reader not only to a series of characters, but to their parents and siblings as well.
The most memorable part of the book is the rescue.
Some Jewish POWs in all of the allied armies, but particularly the US Army, had the mistaken impression that their uniforms would guarantee them equal treatment to that of their fellow soldiers of other faiths.
They were sadly mistaken. There was a general roll call every morning at 6 a.m.
One day in January 1945, the Germans ordered only Jewish POWs in the camp Stalag IXA, where Roddie was a prisoner, to report for roll call. Anyone who didn't would be shot.
Roddie sent out word to all five barracks of American soldiers that everyone without exception must report for roll call. Even the sick were ordered to stand up straight in formation.
Major Siegmann, the Nazi who had given the order, had expected to see only a few Jews lined up, and could not believe that all 1,292 US prisoners were lined up in front of him.
"These men can't all be Jews," he exclaimed as he stood face to face with Roddie, who replied that according to the Geneva Convention, POWs are required to supply only their names, ranks and serial numbers.
"Only the Jews!" shouted Siegmann.
"We are all Jews here," Roddie declared as he stared Siegmann directly in the eyes.
Siegmann took out his pistol and held it to Roddie's forehead, threatening to shoot him unless the Jews stepped forward. Roddie did not flinch.
"If you shoot me,” he told Siegmann, "You will have to shoot all of us, because we know who you are, and you will be tried for war crimes when we win this war."
Siegmann, who had lived for several years in the United States, blanched, pulled his pistol back from Roddie's forehead, put it back in its holster and retreated.
The date happened to be January 27, 1945, where elsewhere in the theater of war, soldiers from the Red Army were liberating Auschwitz.
Chris Edmonds made it his mission in life to tell his father's story.
A friend of Tanner's, without telling Chris, contacted Yad Vashem and nominated Roddie to be named Righteous Among the Nations.
In June 2015, Chris received a phone call from the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles informing him that Yad Vashem was honoring his father for extraordinary bravery.
Six months later, Chris visited Israel for the first time, and at the entrance to Yad Vashem, realized that he would not be there if Stiegmann had pulled the trigger on his pistol.
In January 2016, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, president Barack Obama came to the Israel Embassy in Washington as the keynote speaker and noted Roddie's act of heroism.
In the final paragraph of the book, Edmonds writes: "True heroes I've learned, are rarely the larger-than-life characters of comic books and Hollywood blockbusters. They walk among us like my dad did – virtually unnoticed every day. They make the world a better place, quietly, anonymously – one person, one action at a time."