Paul Stern was standing with 800 other American soldiers on Jan. 27, 1945, at the Stalag IXA prisoner of war camp near Ziegenhain, Germany, when the Nazi commandant confronted Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, ordering him to have all the Jews step forward — 150 to 200, according to Stern.
“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds replied. The commandant then put a gun to Edmonds’ head and said he would shoot him unless he commanded the Jews to step forward. Edmonds replied that the Geneva Conventions state that captured soldiers need only give their name, rank and serial number. “If you shoot me now, you’ll have to shoot all of us because we all know who you are and when the war is over you will be tried as a war criminal,” Edmonds said. The German commandant retreated to his barracks.
“That one act of courage and bravery by [a] master sergeant saved my life, as well as all the Jewish prisoners at Ziegenhain,” Stern, 91, recalled at Congregation Beth Emeth’s first annual Veterans Shabbat, held Nov. 7 at the Herndon synagogue.
The Bronx, N.Y., native and Reston, resident presented this testimony to the Israeli government. That helped to make the late Edmonds, who died in 1985, become the first American serviceman recognized as a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. The announcement was made Dec. 2.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington will hold a ceremony on Jan. 27 in honor of Edmonds. Stern plans to attend.
Stern was captured during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, along with another Jewish soldier, Lester Tanner. They both ended up at Stalag IXA. After the war, Tanner, also a Bronx native, invited Stern to meet his family in the borough, where Stern was introduced to Tanner’s sister, Corinne. They have been married for 68 years.
Stern and his wife are members of Beth Emeth and have a daughter, Joanne Stern Fleeter, also of Reston, and a son, Jeff Stern of Washington.
“When we were young, he was always very reserved and quiet about his war experiences. But certainly in the last 10 or so years, he’s really opened up and told us a lot of the stories and felt comfortable speaking in front of groups, like he did at the temple — and regaling friends and family with his exploits and what he went through,” said Jeff Stern. “I’m very proud of him for doing that, and I think it’s a great thing to be able to tell his children and his family and the grandchildren, so people remember it over time as this ‘greatest generation’ begins to leave us.”
Said Fleeter: “I’m pleased that this story has come and that Roddie Edmonds is getting the validation and the honor that he deserves. I’m proud that my dad was an eyewitness who could give testimony for this heroic act.”
The date his life was saved by Edmonds carries extra significance for Stern: It is also his birthday.
Mr. Marks, Thanks for writing this great and uplifting article. Master Sergeant Edmonds certainly deserves recognition and the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic act. I served 31 years in the Marine Corps and despite what I heard before I enlisted, I found that antisemitism was very rare and that the vast majority of Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen I met and served with were good, honest, fair and very decent people. What Master Sergeant Edmonds did was truly heroic but the spark of this noble behavior is in the hearts of most of our service men and women in uniform given the opportunity to show who they are as Americans. We often hear of only the bad stories, but the good stories outnumber them more than 100 to 1, we just don’t hear the good stories too often. Thanks again for bringing this to light in such an informative and well written article.