Updated on Feb. 3, 2016
Four people were honored posthumously at the Israeli Embassy as Righteous Among the Nations for having the moral courage to stand up to injustice and evil and saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to speak at the embassy, told 225 people gathered the everyone must stand up to evil and “make common cause with the outsider. An attack on any faith is an attack on all our faiths,” said Obama. “When any Jew anywhere is targeted just for being Jewish, we all have to respond. … We are all Jews.”
At the Jan. 27 event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, two Americans and two Poles were added to the roster of 25,600 other Righteous Among the Nations, an honor bestowed by Yad Vashem on behalf of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and relatives of the honorees spoke at the event.
“We know we have no better friend than” the United States, said Netanyahu, who spoke via video. “I thank you for your commitment to work with us,” Netanyahu told Obama, showing no signs of the often-strained relationship between the two leaders.
Dermer echoed the prime minister. “Mr. President, I deeply appreciate the message of friendship that you are conveying by being here with us tonight.”
Dermer then turned to the Holocaust, calling it “an attempt to wipe out the Jewish people — and its primary lesson is for the Jewish people to never be powerless against our enemies.”
Where was man during the Holocaust, he asked. “Where was the moral compass of the millions who simply looked the other way as the Nazis and their army of willing executioners perpetrated such monstrous evil?”
There were those who did do the right thing, Dermer said, pointing out the four honorees — a prisoner of war from Tennessee, a woman from Indiana who set up a school for Jewish children and a Polish couple who opened their home and hearts to a young Jewish girl.
Roddie Edmonds, a master sergeant from Tennessee, was a prisoner in January 1945 when the Jewish prisoners of war in Stalag IXA were asked to present themselves. Edmonds ordered all prisoners, both Jews and non-Jews, to stick together.
“We are all Jews,” Edmonds told the Germans that day. “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes,” Edmonds is said to have told the Germans.
Lester Tanner, who witnessed Edmonds’ heroic words, said his commander did not waver, even when the German took out his pistol and threatened to shoot him.”
Tanner said Edmonds “could no sooner turn 200 of his men over [to the Nazis] then he could stop breathing.”
Edmonds’ son, Chris Edmonds, said his father “lived by a sincere Christian faith.” His father, as well as the other Righteous Among the Nations “refused to join the masses but instead bowed to no one.”
What they did “is right today. It’s right tomorrow. It’s always right.”
In an interview before the ceremony, Edmonds said his father died in 1985 without ever telling him or his mother of his bravery. The only thing his father would say about his war years, Edmonds recalled, was, “Son, there is some things too difficult to discuss, and I would rather not talk about it.”’
Also honored was Lois Gunden, a teacher from Indiana, who volunteered with the Mennonite Central Committee in southern France in 1941. She set up Canet Plage, which became a safe haven for 60 Jewish children whom she helped smuggle out of Rivesaltes, a nearby internment camp.
Walery and Maryla Zbijewski of Poland were honored for welcoming Elzbieta Ferster into their home, after she and her mother, Janina Ferster, had managed to flee the Polish ghetto.
Although they knew they could be put to death for helping a Jew, the Zbijewskis took care of the young girl until her mother was able to rent an apartment under a fake name and take her back.
Elzbieta Ferster, now known as Elizabeth Wilk, told those gathered at the embassy that her father had died in the Warsaw ghetto at the age of 41; she and her mother escaped without knowing where to turn.
“History repeats itself, and I am frightened,” she said.
“We cannot forget our history and the lessons of the past.”
“All of us have a responsibility,” said Obama.
“We must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it. When we see some Jews leaving major European cities — where their families have lived for generations – because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kansas; when swastikas appear on college campuses — when we see all that and more, we must not be silent.”