“Are you happy to be here?” It’s a simple enough question to ask, but imagine asking it as a Southern Baptist pastor speaking in front of a room full of New Jersey Jews. If the question doesn’t seem awkward enough now add, “Stand up. We’re going to love on each other!” And yet, despite their obvious cultural differences, over 100 audience members in attendance did just that. Not because they came to a tent revival, but because they gathered in the sanctuary of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, to hear Pastor Chris Edmonds tell the true story of the time his father, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, saved 200 Jewish American lives during World War II.
As remarkable as Roddie’s story is, it is one that Chris grew up never hearing from his father. Roddie never spoke of his 100 days held captive in a German prisoner-of-war camp, nor did he write the gory details of what he had experienced. It was a vague diary entry Chris came upon years after Roddie’s death that prompted him to, of all things, Google his father’s name and serial number to see if he could learn more about his father’s time in the service. The Internet search yielded one result: a line from a 2008 New York Times story on the man who dared to sell Richard Nixon his home. That man, an attorney named Lester Tanner, happened to mention in the interview that he was alive thanks to the bravery of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds. Intrigued to know more, Chris reached out to Tanner and, for the first time, learned the full story of his father’s bravery in the face of Nazi evil.
Imprisoned in Stalag IX-A after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, age 24, was the highest ranking officer in the barracks. It was the standard practice of the Nazis to segregate all Jewish American P.O.W.’s for removal to death camps, hence Jewish American soldiers were told to destroy their dog tags labeled with an “H” for Hebrew (in case of burial) if captured. On January 26, 1945, Edmonds was ordered by the Nazi officer in charge to have all Jewish soldiers fall out the following morning. Edmonds informed the men of the order and then gave him an order of his own.
The next morning all 1,292 men fell out. “We are all Jews here,” Edmonds informed the dubious Nazi officer. Holding a triggered luger to Edmonds’ forehead, the Nazi officer threatened him with death if he did not order the Jewish soldiers to fall out. Edmonds replied, “You can shoot me, but you’ll have to shoot everyone here, because we will all know what you did. And when we win this war, you’ll be brought up on trial for war crimes.” Scared, the Nazi officer backed down, never to issue another order to segregate Jewish soldiers again.
Three months later, Edmonds once again led his men in a revolt against Nazi orders. Knowing full well the Allied Army was closing in, the Nazis attempted to force the soldiers into a death march out of the camp. Edmonds advised the Nazi officers that his men would not be marching; they were starved and could not possibly make the journey. When the Nazis ignored him, Edmonds ordered his men to return to their barracks at every order to march. Finally, the Nazis grew so frustrated by the American officers they left them in the camp. Two days later, they were liberated by the American infantry on what was the second day of Passover 1945.
Tanner, then Lester Tannenbaum, stood next to Edmonds and watched as the luger was pointed into his head. Although they lost touch after they were liberated, Tanner never forgot Edmonds’ bravery, always remaining grateful to the officer from Tennessee, “who’d probably never seen a Jewish guy before,” for saving his life and the lives of 200 fellow Jewish officers in the camp.
Chris Edmonds wasn’t the only one moved upon hearing the story of his father’s bravery. Tanner’s friend Larry Goldstein worked quietly to nominate Roddie Edmonds for recognition by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Exactly 71 years later, on January 27, 2016, Roddie Edmonds was posthumously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Edmonds is only the fifth American and the first serviceman to receive the honor. He is also the first person to be recognized for saving American Jews.
“Refusing to bow to evil, my father did what was right by his Creator,” Pastor Chris reflected after sharing the story. It was his father’s simple yet profound faith in God that gave him the strength to stand up for his fellow soldiers. His father’s creed was simple: “There is a God and God is good. God’s love is free but it requires one thing: that we be good to one another.”
To that end, Pastor Chris has established Roddie’s Code and The Roddie Edmonds Foundation. He hopes that through sharing his father’s story he can inspire people to become “heroes through daily choices” by understanding that they have the “power to intercede, influence and inspire when they invest in the lives of others.”
After a standing ovation from the audience, Holocaust survivor Murray Goldfinger remained standing to publicly thank Pastor Edmonds for keeping his father’s story alive and sharing it with others. The pastor replied with humble gratitude commenting, “Life is not about one of us, it is about all of us.”
And so, thanks to the extraordinary actions of an ordinary man over 70 years ago, elderly Holocaust survivors and young children, Christians and Jews were able to “love on one another” in a synagogue-style tent revival that inspired all of us to be everyday heroes to and for one another.