Saying ‘We Are All Jews,’ Obama Honors Americans’ Lifesaving Efforts in Holocaust

Publié le par The New York Times by Julie Hirschfeld Davis

Saying ‘We Are All Jews,’ Obama Honors Americans’ Lifesaving Efforts in Holocaust

WASHINGTON — In a German prison camp 71 years ago, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds stared down the barrel of his Nazi captor’s pistol and refused to say which of his fellow prisoners of war were Jewish.

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds

“We are all Jews here,” said Sergeant Edmonds, the highest-ranking American noncommissioned officer at Ziegenhain stalag that day, instead ordering more than 1,000 of his fellow prisoners to stand together in front of their barracks. The Geneva Convention required prisoners to provide only their name, rank and serial number, not their religion, Sergeant Edmonds said, warning the German that if he shot them all, he would be tried for war crimes.

That act of defiance in January 1945 spared the lives of as many as 200 Jews, and, on Wednesday, President Obama echoed Sergeant Edmonds’s words of solidarity with the Jews as he recognized him posthumously as the first American service member to be named Righteous Among the Nations, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The event was the first time a sitting American president has spoken at the Israeli Embassy, and it was all the more notable because it came only months after Mr. Obama clashed openly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel over the Iran nuclear deal. On Wednesday, there was little sign of the rift.

“We are all Jews, because anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil,” Mr. Obama said. “America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains now and forever unshakable, and, I’ve said this before, it would be a fundamental moral failure if America broke that bond.”

Mr. Obama was welcomed warmly by Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, who, with Mr. Netanyahu, spent much of last year working to defeat the president’s highest foreign policy priority. It was the clearest sign to date that both governments are working to heal their relations.

“We know we have no better friend than the United States of America,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video message. Addressing Mr. Obama, he added, “Your being here reflects the unbreakable bond of friendship between Israel and the United States.”

The subject of the Holocaust has been a freighted one throughout Mr. Obama’s presidency. Some Israelis and American Jews were angered by his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, when he declared that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland was rooted in the “tragic history” of the Holocaust. Critics viewed the comment as an implicit rejection of the Zionist ideals and biblical underpinnings of Israel’s history.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama reflected on the visit he made to the Buchenwald concentration camp after that speech. He was introduced as a president with “a Jewish soul” by Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director of the 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” which recounted the tale of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist named as Righteous Among the Nations decades ago for saving more than 1,000 Jews who worked in his factories.

The honor is granted by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance and educational organization, which has bestowed it on more than 25,000 people, only five of them American.

Also being honored on Wednesday was Lois Gunden, a French teacher from Goshen, Ind., who traveled to southern France in 1941 on a Mennonite service project and established a home there where she sheltered children, including Jews whose parents she persuaded to leave them in her care, rather than face deportation or worse.

Mary Jean Gunden, 61, Ms. Gunden’s niece, said her aunt had a “standard line” that she went to France in 1941 and ran a children’s home. She was later detained in Baden-Baden, Germany, by the Nazis, and she went home in a prisoner exchange in 1944. “Unfortunately, none of us really asked a whole lot more than that,” Mary Jean Gunden said. “I’m not convinced that she ever actually realized the magnitude of what she had done.”

Lois Gunden

Lois Gunden

After her aunt’s death in 2005, the younger Ms. Gunden, a retired college administrator, researched her past, rifling through an old trunk containing letters, journals and beach sandals for clues about what she had done in the seaside town of Canet Plage. She eventually contacted Yad Vashem with what she learned.

“Nobody talked about what happened during the war — it’s just now that people are trying to unearth what really was done and to find the stories of the people who tried to do good during these very dark times,” said Eric Escudier, a municipal worker in Perpignan, France, who, with his mother and aunt, wrote a book about Ms. Gunden and the home she had established.

While Sergeant Edmonds’s relatives knew he had been taken prisoner by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge, he had said little about his experiences, telling his family that there were some things that were too difficult to talk about, said his son Chris Edmonds.

After the younger Mr. Edmonds watched a short video his daughter produced in 2009 for a college assignment about her grandfather’s World War II service, he decided he needed to know more and pored over his father’s diaries, which contained no account of the episode other than the phrase “before the commander” with no explanation.

“What that means to me now is, ‘I stood before the commander on behalf of my Jewish brothers,’ ” said Mr. Edmonds, a 58-year-old Baptist pastor from Maryville, Tenn.

But an online search that turned up a New York Times article that made passing reference to Sergeant Edmonds’s deed solved the mystery. The 2008 article quoted Lester J. Tanner saying he owed his life to Sergeant Edmonds for his act of heroism years before.

“What still stands out for me are Roddie’s words and the surprise that we were saved,” said Mr. Tanner, now 92.

Mr. Edmonds is working to get his father awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military tribute. But he said that Wednesday’s recognition carried particular significance, given the recent tensions between the United States and Israel.

“It is an amazing honor, and then to see that, potentially, it could help strengthen the ties between the United States and Israel — that excites me,” said Mr. Edmonds , who is a volunteer activist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel group that worked to defeat the nuclear deal with Iran.

“I’m grateful that the president feels like it’s valuable to be there to honor all of the righteous,” Mr. Edmonds said.

Publié dans Articles de Presse

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