Guest speaker Chris Edmonds opened his jacket and slowly unbuttoned his dress shirt during a Holocaust Memorial Day service Sunday afternoon at Temple Emanu-El, revealing a blue undershirt bearing a Superman-like logo on the chest
Except the “S” for “Superman” was replaced by a “Y” for “you.”
“You can be a superhero,” the protestant pastor from Maryville, Tenn., explained to a gathering of perhaps 200 honoring those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. “Ordinary people doing the right thing at the right time, the right way with the right reason, can be heroes.”
Edmonds told of two incidents in which his late father, Roddie, then a 21-year-old Army master sergeant performed heroic deeds in the final months of World War II.
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Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Edmonds, the ranking non-commissioned soldier of almost 1,300 American troops taken to a German prisoner-of-war camp, refused an order from a German commander to identify the Jewish prisoners.
When Jews were ordered to fall out, Sgt. Edmonds sent all his men – Jews and non-Jews.
According to surviving witnesses, Edmonds’ defiance came with a gun at his head. Still, the only information given by Edmonds was name, rank and serial number.
“My father told the commander that if he killed [Sgt. Edmonds] he would have to kill all the soldiers or else he would be tried as a war criminal at the end of the war,” Chris Edmonds was told. “The commander walked away because he knew that was true.”
The Germans had intended that the American Jewish POWs toil to their death in nearby mines.
Edmonds said he has met five surviving Jewish soldiers who confirmed the story. The surviving POWs are in their 90s.
As Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army troops approached the POW camp, German prison guards ordered all prisoners to begin a march to a camp in the heart of Germany. Again, Edmonds refused the order.
Knowing the consequences of being captured by Patton, the guards quickly left without the American POWs.
“They [American POWs] were in no shape to travel,” Edmonds was told. “Most of them probably would have died.”
Sgt. Edmonds, whose many decorations included the Purple Heart, died at 64 in 1985 and never told the prisoners incidents to his family. Chris Edmonds, now in his mid-50s, didn’t know of his father’s role in saving fellow prisoners until a few years ago.
“I think we will always have to deal with that evil mentality,” Edmonds said. “I hope we have enough willpower within our culture to prevent that from happening.”
Edmonds is now a part of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an American pro-Israel lobby in Washington. He said political leaders in Tennessee are attempting to have his father recognized with a Presidential Medal of Honor.
According to AIPAC figures, the majority of U.S. senators and members of Congress, support Israel, but anti-Semitism in America among the public is growing.
“This is a day to record what human beings are capable of doing to each other,” Temple Emanu-El rabbi Avi Perets said. “It is deeply disturbing that so many knew what was happening to Jews but did nothing.”
Jews recognize at least 25,000 non-Jews that risked their lives helping Jews during the Holocaust.
“We Jews owe these people a debt of gratitude,” Rabbi David Weissman said.
As part of the service, six local Jews who lost family members in the Holocaust lighted candles signifying the 6 million victims. Members of the community read several writings from Holocaust victims.
Hugo Schiller, a Holocaust survivor and a local resident since 1967, lit the first candle. Schiller was one of eight Jewish children allowed to emigrate to relatives in the United States from a relocation area in Vichy France.
Schiller, whose family lived in Baden in southern Germany before being moved to France by the Germans, came to the Grand Strand to be a manager at a Conway plant. He helped found Temple Emanu-El.
“The first thing I think about is my family,” said Schiller about lighting the candle. “I was the only one to survive. I would have never made it if my parents hadn’t gotten me out.”