Orange congregation honors World War II hero

ORANGE >> An American soldier who stood up to the Nazis and saved the lives of some 200 Jews during World War II was honored Sunday at Congregation Or Shalom, his heroic action held up by speakers as an example of what is needed more than ever today in the United States.

Some 240 people attended the event to commemorate Kristallnacht, a series of brutal attacks by the Nazis on Jews Nov. 9-10, 1938, in Germany and Austria. Kristallnacht, which translates to “night of broken glass,” is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust.

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, a recently discovered hero, saved the lives in World War II by refusing to have his Jewish soldiers come forward as ordered by the Nazis, saying instead, “We are all Jews here.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a speaker at the event, said the story of Edmonds has power of meaning “as never before” following the recent presidential election. He said in the first six days after the election, there were more than 430 reported incidents of hate speech, intimidation and the like.

“We see the resurgence of evil in our own society,” Blumenthal said. We can all follow the example of Edmonds by saying, “We are all Muslim here; we are all Hispanics here,” he said.

Edmonds’ son, Pastor Chris Edmonds of Piney Grove Baptist Church, traveled from Tennessee to talk about his father.

Roddie Edmonds, whose heroism was uncovered by his son after his death, is the fifth American and the only American soldier to receive the designation of “Righteous Among the Nations” by the state of Israel. Roddie Edmonds has also been nominated to posthumously receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“My family and I are very proud of Dad,” said Edmonds. “My dad had an infectious love for others. ... In a defining moment when evil demanded his conscience, he bowed to no one.”

Edmonds said his father’s legacy lives on in the more than 2,000 people alive today — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — of those men who were saved, and that his actions send the message to “choose good over evil.”

It was January 1945 when Edmonds, leader of the 422nd Infantry Regiment and held along with some 1,300 of his men in a Nazi POW camp, was told that the next morning he was to send out only the Jews in his group.

Edmonds whispered to his men, “We’re not doing that.” Instead, when morning came, he told the Nazi commandant, “We are all Jews here.”

The commandant said, “These men can’t all be Jews,” pulled out his pistol, held it to Edmonds’ head and demanded he order Jewish soldiers to step forward. Edmonds told him, “If you shoot me, you’ll have to shoot us all,” and that if he did that he’d be tried for war crimes after the war was won.

The commandant put his gun back in his holster and left the scene.

Roddie Edmonds never gave his family any other details of his service, telling Chris Edmonds only, “Son, we were humiliated,” referring to their brutal days and long journey without food, water or winter clothes to the German POW camp.

It wasn’t until years after Roddie’s death when Chris Edmonds was going through his father’s military belongings and a diary that he began to research the details.

That led him to Lester Tanner of New York, a Jewish soldier in Edmonds’ regiment whose life was among those saved. It was Tanner who provided the witness account as to what occurred that day — and he was at Or Shalom on Sunday with family to deliver a powerful message.

Tanner said it’s important to remember, especially today, that Germany was a democracy and once Hitler was elected in 1933 the move to dictatorship was rapid. He said it took 53 days.

Tanner, who was 10 at the time and remembers first-hand, said Hitler told the German people he knew more than the generals about protecting the nation, more about negotiating than the diplomats, and more about business than business leaders.

“He alone knew how to make Germany great again,” Tanner said of Hitler’s promise. “These days today are a frightening reminder of what’s happening here.”

He said one of Hitler’s first acts was to appoint two Cabinet members — one an anti-Semitic newsman. Before long, the free press disappeared. Hitler’s next appointment, Tanner said, was a military leader who believed a religious minority was a hindrance and so he founded the Gestapo. Soon, the Enabling Act was passed, giving Hitler the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag, he said.

Blumenthal said his own father, who made it out of Nazi Germany, emphasized the importance of staying mindful of racism and anti-Semitism and often said everyone has an obligation to stand up to those societal ills.

“We must now stand strong for the principles of civil rights and civil liberties,” Blumenthal said.

Ron Meier, executive director of Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum, lost his maternal grandparents in the Holocaust, and his mother survived only because they put her on a Kinder Transport for children. He said the point of the museum is not to amass the most impressive collection of items, but rather to reclaim the lives of those lost so that “victim” isn’t their sole status, and to use their lives and “what we know about their lives” as a sacred text.

President Barack Obama, and Steven Spielberg, founder of the Shoah Foundation, participated in the 2015 event where Roddie Edmonds was honored at the Israeli Embassy.