Back in early November I visited my parents in Virginia, taking advantage of the fact that the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America was being held in Washington.
That meant it was back to my childhood synagogue for Saturday morning services Nov. 7, which I knew would be special because, after years of urging by my mother, Congregation Beth Emeth was finally holding a Veterans Day Shabbat.
Regardless of any negative stereotypes, Jews have been as likely as anyone else in society to serve their country in the military, and that was clear throughout the service as veterans from World War II through Afghanistan and Iraq received honors on the bimah while the congregation read through a program that included the military exploits of congregants’ late parents and
The stories shared during the service and the Kiddush lunch that followed included the everyday heroics of wartime and the often-mundane service of those who wear a uniform in peace or on the home front. Too many of the veterans had at least a brush with anti-Semitism; all of them, whether they recognized it or not, had been heroes.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that one of the stories truly was historic.
Paul Stern was an American soldier in World War II; today, he and two more generations of his family are members of my parents’ Conservative shul.
He told us about being captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and being sent to a POW camp in Germany. And he told us the remarkable story of an Army master sergeant who saved the lives of Stern and scores of other Jewish prisoners with one act of bravery.
The German army was known to segregate Jewish prisoners of war from other POWs. On the Eastern Front, captured Jewish soldiers were often sent to death camps. In the West, the likely destination was a slave labor camp, where survival was rare. So U.S. troops were warned to destroy anything identifying them as Jewish.
In late January 1945 at a POW camp called Stalag IXA near Ziegenhain, the word went out that the Jewish POWs were to identify themselves the next morning.
The highest-ranking American prisoner was Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tenn. He ordered all the men, Jews and gentiles, to muster the next day before the German camp commander.
Stern, who was a noncommissioned officer himself and stood closed to Edmonds, recounted that the German officer shouted, “They cannot all be Jews,” to which Edmonds replied, “We are all Jews here.”
Stern and another Jewish POW who was there that day, Lester Tanner, have testified that the camp commander pulled out a pistol and held it to Edmonds’ head, threatening to shoot him dead if he did not identify the Jews.
But Edmonds insisted that the 1,000-plus men behind him were Jews and that they were required to offer only name, rank and serial number, and the men did not waver in backing the master sergeant. The Germans eventually backed down, keeping the Jewish prisoners with the general population, and the war in Europe ended a little more than three months later.
It took more than 70 years after that heroic moment, and 30 years after Edmonds died, but Yad Vashem this month declared the master sergeant to be one of the Righteous Among the Nations. He is the first American soldier so honored.
I didn’t know of the forthcoming honor when Stern spoke, only that he and some unknown number of fellow American Jews were saved that day so that he could stand in a synagogue social hall all those years later to tell the tale and remind us why he, Edmonds and their peers deserve to be known as the Greatest Generation.