First US soldier named Righteous Among the Nations

Yad Vashem honors soldier who thwarted Nazi plans to murder Jewish POWs, by staring death in the face and saying 'we are all Jews.'

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Righteous Among the Nations exhibit in Yad Vashem
Righteous Among the Nations exhibit in Yad Vashem
Miriam Alster/Flash 90

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on Tuesday announced that the late Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds has been posthumously recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, marking him the first US soldier to be awarded the honor.

Edmonds, who served in the 422nd Infantry Regiment of the US Armed Forces in World War II, was recognized for his heroism in rescuing Jewish servicemen at the Stalag IXA POW Camp in Germany.

The soldier's son Chris Edmonds is currently in Israel on a seminar sponsored by the International School for Holocaust Studies for Christian leaders.

"Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds seemed like an ordinary American soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings," said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev.

"These attributes form the common thread that binds members of this select group of Righteous Among the Nations. The choices and actions of Master Sergeant Edmonds set an example for his fellow American soldiers as they stood united against the barbaric evil of the Nazis."

Edmonds hailed from Knoxville, Tennessee, and served as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in Europe during the war. He participated in the landing of the American forces in Europe, and was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, after which he was interned at Stalag IXA, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.

"We are all Jews"

The German Wehrmacht's anti-Semitic policy had it single out Jewish POWs from the rest, and on the Eastern Front many Jewish POWs were sent to death camps or murdered outright. The same policy was used in the West in several cases.

NCO Paul Stern told Yad Vashem about Edmonds' heroic act.

In January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish POWs in Stalag IXA were to report the following morning. Edmonds, who was the highest ranking solider in the American section of the camp ordered all his men to fallout the following morning – Jews and non-Jews alike.

When the German camp commander, Major Siegmann, saw that all the camp’s inmates were standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and exclaimed: “they cannot all be Jews!” To this Edmonds heroically replied: “we are all Jews.”

Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but the Master Sergeant did not waver and retorted: “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 left the scene. 

Stern, one of the Jewish POWs rescued by Edmonds, told Yad Vashem that he was taken prisoner on December 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. He stood very close to Edmonds during the exchange with the German camp commander, which he later recalled was conducted in English.

“Although seventy years have passed,” said Stern, “I can still hear the words he said to the German Camp Commander.”

"A man of great courage"

Lester Tanner, another Jewish soldier captured at the Battle of the Bulge, also gave testimony regarding the incident. Tanner had trained in Fort Jackson where Master Sergeant Edmonds was stationed. Tanner remembered Edmonds well from his training period.

“He did not throw his rank around. You knew he knew his stuff and he got across to you without being arrogant or inconsiderate. I admired him for his command…we were in combat on the front lines for only a short period, but it was clear that Roddie Edmonds was a man of great courage who led his men with the same capacity we had come to know of him in the States.”

Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were well aware that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and that therefore they understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger.

“I would estimate that there were more than one thousand Americans standing in wide formation in front of the barracks with Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds standing in front with several senior non-coms beside him, of which I was one…there was no question in my mind, or that of Master Sergeant Edmonds, that the Germans were removing the Jewish prisoners from the general prisoner population at great risk to their survival."

"The US Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the greatest extent possible," said Tanner. "Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”

Edmonds passed away in 1985. In 2015, Yad Vashem posthumously recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations.

He is the first American soldier, and one of only five Americans, to be recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, alongside Varian Fry, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, and Lois Gunden. To date, more than 26,000 individuals have received the honor.