I was slightly embarrassed to realize that I hadn’t ever heard of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, whose story President Obama told at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington the other week and who is one of only five Americans honored by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” So I’d like to begin this week by telling the story of his great bravery in all its awesome simplicity. Edmonds was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and was the senior non-commissioned officer in the P.O.W. camp to which he and the other American prisoners were sent. When the German camp commander, a Major Siegmann, ordered the Jewish prisoners to step forward, Edmonds instructed all of his men to step forward. When the commander said, in English, that they could obviously not all be Jews, Edmonds responded coolly, “We are all Jews here.” To this, the commander responded by raising his pistol and pressing its barrel to Edmonds’ forehead. It’s hard even to imagine the bravery that Edmonds then showed: he turned to face the man aiming a gun directly at him and responded with words that bear quoting. “According to the Geneva Convention,” Sgt. Edmonds said, “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 commander, who presumably understood on some level that Germany had already lost the war, backed down; the two hundred or so Jewish prisoners among the roughly one thousand American soldiers present were safe, or at least as safe as any prisoner-of-war could have reasonably expected to be in German hands.
The story, which took place on January 27, 1945, in the Stalag IX-A prisoner-of-war camp near Ziegenhain, has been fully documented by eyewitnesses. The danger was real. The Germans routinely murdered Jewish prisoners-of-war on the Eastern Front, but by 1945 the death camps were not fully functional and Jewish prisoners were instead being sent to slave labor camps. Their chances of survival in such places were minimal, however, and Edmonds fully understood that, by refusing to allow the Germans to treat Jewish prisoners differently from non-Jewish ones, he was saving their lives. And thus did he fully earn his place in the Yad Vashem registry alongside the other 25,685 individuals honored for having risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis. He is the first American serviceman to be so honored, but not the first American: there were four who preceded him: Varian Mackey Fry, called the American Schindler, who was personally responsible for helping more than two thousand Jewish people escape from Nazi-occupied France; Lois Gunden, who, as a twenty-six-year-old teacher in southern France helped protect Jewish children from their would-be murderers (and whose story the President also told last week in Washington); and Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister , and his wife Martha Sharp who were responsible for saving numerous Jews, including the then-famous author Leon Feuchtwanger, from the Nazis. Edmonds died in 1985 without having fully told his own story; it fell eventually to his son, the Rev. Chris Edmonds of Maryville, Tennessee, to put the details together and then to bring them to the attention of Yad Vashem.
The story could hardly be more stirring, but it also awakens all sorts of ancillary questions in me that are as emotionally unsettling as the larger story is inspiring. It is, for example, not especially complicated for me to imagine myself as one of the Jewish soldiers interned at Stalag IX-A. Indeed, I can easily see myself consumed with anxiety while contemplating the range of things could plausibly befall a Jew who suddenly finds himself fallen into Nazi hands. As a soldier, I would have been well aware of the virulence of Nazi anti-Semitism. And I would surely also have heard about the camps, or about some of them—by December 1944, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec had already been liberated by the Red Army and at least part of their ghastly legacy been made public—and would fully have understood what they represented in terms of the depths of the enemy’s depravity. I don’t believe it was widely known in the winter of 1944 yet that the Germans were actually executing prisoners-of-war in the East, but the specter of impending doom would surely have been hanging over me. (I mentioned above that it was German policy to murder Jewish prisoners-of-war who fell into their hands, but it was hardly only Jewish POWs that the Germans were executing on the Eastern Front: 57% of all Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody, which works out to something like 3.3. million people. Of those prisoners, about 5% are estimated to have been Jewish.) In that sense, I find it not at all challenging to imagine myself in that place at that time, and to conjure up the set of complex emotions that would no doubt have seized me as I waited, filled with dread, to see what was going to happen next.
Dramatically more difficult for me, however, is to imagine myself as Master Sgt. Edmonds. He was, as noted above, neither a philosopher nor a professional ethicist, just a man with the cold steel of a German Luger pressed up against his forehead as he was ordered by his captors to do something that would not only make it seriously more likely that he himself would survive, but that would—or at least might—make it concomitantly more likely that the large majority of the men among whom he was the senior officer would also survive their incarceration. In other words, Sgt. Edmonds had every reason to believe that by separating out the Jewish prisoners, the remaining men would be far less likely to provoke the murderous rage of their captors. He had seconds, not minutes (let alone hours or days) to decide what to do. Yet he stood his ground, refusing to obey Major Siegmann’s order and instead putting his life on the line rather than abandon his principles or betray any of the Jewish men for whom he was responsible and whose self-appointed savior he had somehow, unanticipatedly, become.
What does it take to be a man like that, to be someone who chooses to risk death rather than to betray his comrades-in-arms, someone who willingly puts his own life on the line rather than abandon his own principles? To say that I would do the same is just blather; I’d surely like to think that of myself (who wouldn’t?), but, speaking fully honestly, which of us knows what he or she would actually do in such a situation? To say the same thing in different words, it isn’t at all difficult to find it appealing to think of myself as such a person. But to say with certainty, or even with near certainty, that I would do that thing if I were in that position…those are words that I find myself unable to say with the kind of self-assurance that really should characterize the kind of man I like to think of myself as being.
As noted above, Master Sgt. Edmonds died more than twenty years ago. A bit in this regard like David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the Struma whose story I wrote about two weeks ago, Roddie Edmonds too chose to keep his story close to his breast, telling his story only to his own diary and keeping the details of his bravery even from his own son. (How the son eventually heard the story is its own strange tale. After leaving the White House in 1972, Richard Nixon purchased a town house in Manhattan from a Jewish lawyer who was quoted in a magazine article about the sale as mentioning that his life had been saved by Sgt. Edmonds all those years earlier…and Sgt. Edmonds’ son happened to see that newspaper story posted somewhere on the Internet decades later. Amazed to learn something about his own late father that he hadn’t ever heard before, he proceeded to seek out the lawyer—who was fortunately still alive—and from there to uncover the details of his father’s bravery and to meet some of the men who were present on that day in the winter of 1945.) That Sgt. Edmonds declined to think of himself as a hero seems natural; the way of the truly virtuous among us is to find it natural and normal to behave nobly and to find it correspondingly peculiar to imagine that they should be singled out for praise merely for having done the right thing. In that regard, Sgt. Edmonds was more like Miep Gies (the woman who hid Anne Frank’s family until they were betrayed to the Nazis) or Lassana Bathily (the man who successfully hid the people who survived the Hyper Cacher massacre in Paris last January), both of whom refused to allow themselves to be referred to as heroes because it struck them as ignoble to take special credit merely for having behaved decently even when doing so could easily have cost them their lives. (I wrote about them both in a letter last year; if you’re reading this electronically and you want to see what I had to say about them then, click here.)
As I have often written in these pages, heroism has become a passé virtue in our day. We live in a world in which politicians are so routinely duplicitous that people do not find it odd to say that they are supporting a candidate because he or she seems like an honest person instead of expecting honesty and candor of anyone and everyone who would be considered for public office. So too with heroism: we live in a world in which people who merely do the right thing are called heroes and admired for their virtue. Whether or not it is healthy for society to upgrade what ought to be labelled decent behavior to the level of true heroism is a question for philosophers, but the bottom line has to be that I personally couldn’t admire Sgt. Roddie Edmonds more for his bravery in the face of Nazi evil more than seventy years ago. But—and this is key, I think—I admire him no less for not thinking of himself as someone whom the world should admire because he did the right thing, and for being someone who acted with great bravery not because he wanted a medal or a tree on the Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem but simply because that was what decency demanded and his position in the Armed Forces required him to do. Sgt. Edmonds himself may not have thought of himself as a hero merely for having done the right thing. But I do!