On a cold morning on Jan. 27, 1945, 1,292 American prisoners of war gathered for roll call at Stalag IXA. The fact that all of the soldiers, even the sick and wounded, came for roll call was in defiance of German orders.
The day before, the Germans had announced that only Jewish soldiers were to appear. Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the highest-ranking officer at the camp, knew if they obeyed the order the Jews likely would be shipped to death camps. The Germans didn’t know which prisoners were Jewish -- they needed the Americans to obey the order so they could identify the Jewish soldiers.
The prisoners counted on Edmonds, a devoted Christian from East Tennessee, to lead them. After prayer and consulting with others, Edmonds outlined his plan. Everyone, even those normally excused because of wounds or illness, would report for roll call.
When the German major in charge saw everyone in formation he was infuriated. He ordered Edmonds to identify the Jewish soldiers and Edmonds responded by telling the major all the Americans were Jews.
The major placed the barrel of his pistol between Edmonds’ eyes and again demanded he give up the Jews. Instead, Edmonds told him that he would have to kill everyone otherwise the major would be held accountable for killing him after the war. An angry and frustrated major holstered his gun and stormed away.
No Jewish soldiers were identified by Edmonds or any of the other malnourished prisoners. A short time later, Edmonds would develop a plan to spare the American POWs from being taken on a forced march by the Germans. They were rescued by American troops after the German guards fled.
Edmonds returned to Tennessee, married and raised a family. He lived a quiet life, enjoyed going to nursing homes and hospitals to sing and cheer up the residents and patients. He didn’t talk about his wartime experiences, and his son didn’t learn about his father’s courage until one of his daughters decided to do a college paper on her late grandfather’s experiences as a POW.
It prompted the Rev. Chris Edmonds to track down some of the Jewish soldiers saved by his father, and they had never forgotten his courage. The story is told in “No Surrender,” the book written by Chris Edmonds and Douglas Century.
Why do we recount this story on the eve of Easter? Because Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ, honors his sacrifice for others.
In that desolate camp, Edmonds and the other soldiers risked their lives to save buddies in danger because of their religion. They did what was right. They were, knowingly or not, following Christ’s path.
They saved fellow soldiers, many they didn’t know, at the risk of their own lives as the war was on the brink of ending.
We have seen this type of devotion to others during the past year as the world battled the pandemic. Whether first responders helping the ill or ordinary citizens feeding and comforting those in need, we are reminded we are a caring nation.
We’ve also seen the dark side of mankind, such as the recent attacks on Asian Americans.
Edmonds and the other prisoners had witnessed the worst that mankind can offer. Yet, they had the faith and strength to face the horror and endure.
That ability to overcome the obstacles confronting us still exists. There’s no better time to remind us of this than Easter.