Heroes of the Holocaust: Sergeant Roddie “We are all Jews” Edmonds
Courage comes in many forms. Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds joined the US Army to serve his country and fight the Nazis. He was trained to be a courageous soldier. They taught him how to issue commands, how to storm far-off beaches, and to charge into machine gun fire without missing a step. It was the kind of courage that he needed to survive the fight he was dropped into. He was sent to the field in December 1944 mere days before the Germans launched a massive surprise counter-offensive to retake a Belgium port. You may know the operation better as "the Battle of the Bulge.” The Nazis fielded more than 450,000 troops and 1,500 tanks to halt the allies advance in the single deadliest campaign endured by the Americans in WW2.
Edmonds was green, this was his first actual combat encounter. And while he did his duty, he was captured like so many others by the Germans and sent to Stalag IX-A, a Nazi POW camp. It was here where he would find a different kind of courage and would cement himself as a hero to his fellow brothers-in-arms and in history.
Paul Stern was a combat medic from New York and a Jew. Like Edmonds, he was also caught in the madness of the Battle of the Bulge. Nobody taken captive by the Nazis was safe, but for Jews it was an almost guaranteed death sentence. Marched for days in deep snow without proper clothing, the deaths began almost immediately. Stern watched as fellow soldiers dropped dead in the snow from exhaustion and hypothermia. When they finally arrived at their destination the situation did not improve. He and his fellow POWs were loaded into boxcars and driven for days with no food to Stalag IX-B. Jewish POWs were immediately segregated from the other prisoners, taken to a specific barracks where the conditions were purposefully more miserable and dangerous than the others. Emaciated bodies kept barely alive on starvation rations, trying to get whatever rest they could in lice infested mattresses.
This is where Stern most likely would have died if not for a battlefield commission he earned weeks before his capture. Shortly after arrival, the Germans separated the officers from the regular enlisted Jews. The enlisted Jews were taken to a slave labor camp where they would almost certainly perish while the officers were taken to Stalag IX-A, where Stern would meet Edmonds.
Stern had a secret he kept during this time; he could speak fluent German. While prisoners were asked if they spoke German (and in some cases German speaking prisoners would be used for clerical or other duties more appealing than slave labor), Stern kept quiet. He thought that being able to understand what his captors were saying without them realizing might be helpful. And while it didn’t ever materialize into an escape plan, it did help him survive and allowed him to understand Master Sergeant Roddie Edmond’s courage.
The US Army has guidelines for captured soldiers. These guidelines encourage soldiers to find ways to survive and escape if possible but place extra responsibility on ranking officers. In the event of capture, officers were expected to resist the enemy in anyway possible while safeguarding the care and lives of the men to the best of their ability. Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds rose to this challenge and then some. He became a leader to the men, a source of stability and strength in an oppressive situation. Respected by the men and able to speak German, he became their voice when the Germans demanded something.
After a few weeks, the Germans ordered all Jewish POWs to report in the morning. Everyone knew what that meant. They were preparing to either exterminate the Jewish population of the camp, or transfer them to an even worse slave camp where they would be worked to death. Edmonds organized their resistance.
In the morning, almost 1000 servicemen, Jew and non-Jew alike arranged in formation in front of the camp barracks, Edmonds leading at the front to report. The German officer in charge saw this and reeled on Edmonds "they cannot all be Jews!”
"We are all Jews” Edmond replied in a flat even tone.
Even when the officer drew his pistol and put it in Edmonds face his resolve didn’t break. He spoke in slow, careful German "According to the Geneva Convention, we have to give only 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.”
Understand what Edmonds was doing here. He was openly defying the commander of the prison camp, making himself and all of his men a target in order to save his Jewish brothers-in-arms. It is one thing to find courage in a battle, to risk your life in the heat of combat. It’s another to willfully and intentionally put your own life on the line to save another’s. Especially when you are confronted with unimaginable cruelties on a daily basis and know that every single one of those cruelties could and likely would be used against you as punishment for taking a stand. But Edmonds didn’t flinch. He didn’t make excuses, he didn’t shirk, he knew what the right thing was in the moment and stuck with it. The courage of a good man.
Miraculously, rather than make an example of him, the German officer gave up and left the group. No punishment, collective or personally to Edmonds followed. Of the 1000 servicemen who lined up that day, more than 150 of them were Jewish, and they all owed their lives to the courage Edmonds and their fellow non-Jewish comrades for shielding them with their own lives. Incredible bravery in their darkest moment.
More than 70 years later, Stern would say he could still recall the words Edmonds used to save his life and the life of every Jew in the camp. "We are all Jews.”