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Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds Honored by Israel for Defending Jews

TEL AVIV, Israel — Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds did something extraordinary when a Nazi commander pointed a gun at the U.S. POW and demanded Jewish American soldiers with him identify themselves.

As the highest-ranking American non-commissioned officer at the Stalag IX A POW camp, Edmonds instead told all 1,000 U.S. servicemen to step forward and then declared, "We are all Jews here."

IMAGE: Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds
Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds Courtsey of Yad Vashem

While this act of heroism saved the lives of some 200 Jewish American soldiers among the ranks, Edmonds' story remained untold for decades. His son, Rev. Chris Edmonds, only discovered the truth after his father's death in 1985, according to The Associated Press.

Now the Knoxville, Tennessee, native is being designated "Righteous Among the Nations," the highest honor Israel confers on non-Jews who have risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Its most famous recipient is Oskar Schindler, depicted in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

"It all started with an email I received from Chris [Edmonds] telling me about his father's heroic actions," said Irena Steinfeldt, the director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem.

A 25-year-old Edmonds was captured along thousands of others during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. The Germans were singling out Jewish POWs, and while the most infamous Nazi death camps were no longer fully operational, many Jews did die in slave labor camps.

According to an account pieced together from information in Roddie Edmonds' diaries and corroborated by research and interviews by Steinfeldt and her staff, Americans had been warned that Jewish fighters among them would be in danger.

With the camp's inmates defiantly standing in front of their barracks, the German commander turned to Edmonds and said: "They cannot all be Jews."

Image: Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds' diaries
Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds' diaries helped his son Chris piece together his capture by the Nazis during WWII, and subsequent heroic acts at Stalag IX A POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. Courtesy of Yad Vashem

"Then my dad said: 'If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you'll be tried for war crimes when we win this war,'" Chris Edmonds told The Associated Press. The German officer withdrew without finding the Jewish POWs.

"Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds seemed like an ordinary American soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings," Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem said in a statement announcing Edmonds selection for the honor.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama will attend a ceremony to posthumously honor four Righteous Among the Nations recipients, including Edmonds.

The ceremony at Israel's Embassy in Washington, D.C., set to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day will honor two Americans and two Polish citizens. Lois Gunden, the other American to be honored, was a teacher in southern France during the war and helped smuggle Jewish children out of nearby Rivesaltes internment camp.

"Honoring Edmonds and others is an attempt to find some hope and recognize that every person is responsible for their deeds," Steinfeldt said. "Every person has a choice between good and evil."

"We have a saying in Judaism that says, 'Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe,'" she added.

What Does 'Righteous Among The Nations' Mean? Irena Steinfeldt Explains 2:07