As of Jan. 1, 2020, there were 27,712 persons named Righteous Among the Nations (Righteous Gentiles) by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. All of them are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Five of them are American.
In 1994, Varian Fry was the first American named to the list. A New York City native and Harvard graduate with a degree in classics, Fry had volunteered with the Emergency Rescue Committee to go to France to help rescue victims of Nazism. Planning on staying for a month, he arrived in Marseille in August 1940 with $3,000 and a list of 200 Jews he hoped to save. Soon, however, he understood the enormity of his task and judged it “criminally irresponsible” to return home. He stayed until he was forcibly expelled from France 13 months later “for having protected Jews and anti-Nazis.” Fighting the Vichy regime and the U.S. State Department, which tried repeatedly to have him sent home, Fry carried a gun, arranged smugglings into Spain, obtained foreign passports and visas, hired a forger, and with a small staff saved over 2,000 refugees. Mainly interested in writers, artists, and intellectuals, this passionate anti-fascist rescued Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophüls, Arthur Koestler, André Breton, and several other surrealist artists.
Martha and Waitstill Sharp were named Righteous Among the Nations in 2005. Waitstill was a minister in the Unitarian Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his wife, Martha, was a noted social worker. They agreed to go to Prague in February 1939 to help members of the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia. Once there, they helped smuggle Jews out of the country that had been taken over by the Nazis the month after their arrival. They experienced dangerous encounters with Nazi police but managed to return safely to the United States in August. Once again, however, in late spring 1940, they returned to Europe to help rescue Jewish people from France where they worked with Varian Fry, Hiram Bingham IV, and others smuggling Jews, many of them children, into Spain and Portugal.
Lois Gunden, named “Righteous” in 2013, also rescued Jews in France. Born and raised in Goshen, Indiana, Gunden went to France in October 1941, at the age of 26, to work with the Mennonite Central Committee. Fluent in French, she headed the Ville St. Christophe Children’s Refugee Convalescent Home in Canet Plage in the south of France. It was a 20-room mansion that housed 60 children, mostly those of Spanish refugees from Franco’s Spain and Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe being held in the nearby Rivesaltes internment camp. Gunden continued to run this safe haven for refugee children even after November 1942 when the Germans occupied the entire country. She managed to hide many Jewish children in the home and save them from deportation to Drancy and then Auschwitz. In January 1943, she was detained as an “enemy alien” and transported to Germany. In March 1944, she was released in a prisoner exchange.
On Memorial Day 2021, 76 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, let’s remember the heroics of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the fifth American Righteous Gentile and the only one to have saved the lives of American Jews.
In early December 1944, the 106th Infantry Division, which comprised the 422nd, 423rd, and 424th Regiments, landed in France and traveled by truck across France and Belgium, reaching the Schnee Eifel area in Eastern Belgium near the German border. On Dec. 10, they took up their positions. On Dec. 16, the 422nd was attacked by the Germans in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, during which the Germans would capture 20,000 GIs. Although they were cut off and surrounded, the part of the regiment that Edmonds belonged to held out until Dec. 21 when they surrendered to the Germans. After having been forced to march 50 kilometers to Gerolstein, Germany, the men of the 422nd Regiment were loaded into box cars with no food or water and traveled for four days until they reached Bad Orb, Germany. They spent several weeks in Bad Orb, after which they were divided into three groups (officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men). Roddie Edmonds’ group, the NCOs, were then shipped to Stalag IXA in Ziegenhain. There were 1,275 men in this group and Roddie Edmonds was the highest-ranking NCO among them.
It was German policy to single out Jewish POWs and send them to extermination or slave labor camps. Accordingly, in January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish prisoners in Stalag IXA would report the following morning. Twenty-five-year-old Master Sgt. Edmonds, who was responsible for all the POWs in Stalag IXA, ordered all prisoners, Jews and non-Jews, to fall out. When the German officer in charge, Maj. Siegmann, saw all the prisoners lined up in front of the barracks that next morning, he said to Edmonds: “They cannot all be Jews.” Edmonds responded: “We are all Jews here.”
Siegmann then pointed a pistol to Edmonds’ head, but Edmonds, refusing to back down, replied: “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 German major turned and walked away. Edmonds had saved the lives of the roughly 200 Jewish prisoners among the 1,275 American POWs.
Edmonds, who was named “Righteous” in 2015, did not speak much about his experiences. His family only knew that he had been taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and that he had survived 100 days of captivity before returning home. His son, Baptist Rev. Chris Edmonds, mentioned that when he would ask his father about the war, he often told him only that “Some things were too difficult to talk about.” When Roddie died in 1985, his wife gave her son, Chris, two of the diaries he had kept as a POW.
Yet it was only in scouring the internet many years later that Chris discovered the exact story of his father’s heroism. In 2009, Chris’ daughter, Lauren, was given a college assignment to do a video history project about a family member. Lauren opted to work on her paternal grandfather. Chris decided to lend a hand. He googled the words “Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds,” expecting that it would lead to Army records or the Battle of the Bulge. Instead, it led to a 2008 New York Times article about a New York City lawyer, Lester Tanner, who had sold his Manhattan townhouse to former President Richard Nixon. What could have possibly been the link between Edmonds and the sale of a townhouse to Nixon? Tanner mentioned in the article that Roddie Edmonds had saved his life and that of many other Jews during WWII.
This led Chris Edmonds to Lester Tanner and other Jewish POWs saved by his father, one of whom was Sonny Fox, the American television host and executive. These POWs and in some cases their families filled in many details completely unknown to the Edmonds family. Tanner told them that he admired Roddie for the way he led: “He never threw his rank around ... and was a man of great courage.” Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were all aware at the time that the Germans were murdering Jews. They therefore understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger. “Master Sergeant Edmonds,” he said, “at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequence that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”
Another of the Jewish POWs saved by Edmonds, Paul Stern, explained that when the 422nd Regiment got to Bad Orb, lower-ranking Jewish POWs from another stalag were in fact sent to slave labor camps where many of them died. Stern, who had learned German in college, could understand what the Germans had in store for the POWs. He also stated that the conversation between the German commandant, Maj. Siegmann, and Roddie Edmonds was in English. “Although seventy years have passed,” Stern claimed, “I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander.” Finally, Hank Freedman, another POW rescued by Edmonds, told Chris that his father’s faith impacted and emboldened all his men, whether they were believers or not.
On Jan. 27, 2016, in a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., attended by then President of the United States Barack Obama, Master Sgt. Edmonds’ son accepted the Righteous medal and the certificate of honor awarded to his father. Roddie Edmonds has twice been nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of his heroic actions during World War II.” So far, no action has been taken. But Chris’ hope has hardly been extinguished. He wants his father to be awarded the Medal of Honor, our country’s “highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.” The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ short but powerful documentary on Edmonds, “Following the Footsteps of My Father,” would offer a great deal of compelling evidence.
In the JFR’s documentary, we learn that Roddie Edmonds might very well have also saved the lives of hundreds of his men by refusing to evacuate the camp where they were being held. The Germans knew the end was near and they did not want to be around when the American soldiers arrived. They told Edmonds to get ready to evacuate. Edmonds told the German officers that his men were too weak to evacuate the camp and begin a long march. The French POWs moved out along with the British POWs. The German officers told Edmonds that the camp was his: They were leaving.
Shortly thereafter, on March 30, 1945, Stalag IXA was liberated by American forces. It was the second day of Passover. As Sonny Fox remarked: “It was the day of our freedom.”
Patrick Henry is professor emeritus of philosophy and literature at Whitman College. He is the author of, among other books, We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust and the editor of Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis.