Seventy-two years after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on January 27 1945, Britain and other nations are acknowledging Holocaust Memorial Day at a time when anti-Semitism is once more on the rise.
Israel itself, which has since risen from the ashes of that dreadful scourge that wiped out six million European Jews, is under dire threat from enemies on all sides while attacks on synagogues and other Jewish centres are still being carried out in the ‘civilised’ West. Only this last weekend in north-west London, a swastika-daubed brick was hurled through a Jewish family’s window while others were pelted with eggs.
The fragile borders to which the United Nations expect Israel to agree (just nine miles wide in places) have for good reason been described by politicians as ‘Auschwitz lines’ because they leave the Jewish state highly vulnerable to attack from neighbouring states who have repeatedly threatened to wipe them off the map.
It was also in January 1945 that one of the most heroic accounts of the war took place. But the incredible story has only just surfaced because the hero concerned never spoke about it.
The truth was finally unearthed by his granddaughter when asked to focus on a family member as part of a college assignment. Her widowed grandmother gave her the diary kept by her husband during his time in a prisoner-of-war camp which revealed the astonishing fact that, by standing up to the German commandant, Master Sgt Roddie Edmonds, of Knoxville, Tennessee, had saved the lives of 200 American Jews.
As the highest-ranking officer there, Edmonds was made responsible for the camp’s 1,292 American GIs, 200 of whom were Jewish. Then one day the Germans ordered all Jewish POWs to report outside their barracks the following morning. Knowing what awaited them – being moved to a slave labour camp at the very least – he decided to resist the directive, ordering all his men to fall out the following morning.
The commandant, Major Siegmann, duly ordered Edmonds to identify the Jewish soldiers, to which the sergeant responded: “We are all Jews here.”
Holding his pistol to Edmonds’ head, the commandant repeated the order. But the sergeant – a devout Christian – refused.
“According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes,” Edmonds had said, according to one of the men saved that day.
Edmonds’ pastor son Chris regards all of them as heroes as they could easily have identified the Jews among them to save their skin. But they all stood together.
Late last year Roddie Edmonds was posthumously awarded the Yehi Or (Let there be light) Award by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. He has also been honoured by Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
But as Jews were herded into cattle trucks for transporting to death camps, there weren’t many Roddies about who dared to speak up and stand up on their behalf.
These days, where controversial issues are concerned, leaders still prefer to keep their heads below the proverbial parapet while remaining ‘impartial’. But there is a time when we must take sides. We must choose between life and death, between God and evil. If we claim to be Christian, we have no option.
“Neutrality is only an illusion,” writes Robert Stearns. “Those who are not for God are against Him. (Matthew 12.30a) “The German public’s unfortunate legacy during World War II lies not in what they did in response to their despotic leader and his horrendous practices, but in what they did not do.”
This did not apply, however, to Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, young Christians who led the White Rose leaflet campaign of resistance for which they paid with their lives. Prophetically, they asked the question: “Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes… reach the light of day?”
Stearns also points out that, when the Nazis invaded European nations, many monarchs vacated their thrones and fled. But King Christian X stayed in Denmark as he defied the bullies. And thanks to his example, most Danish Jews survived the war.
Princess Alice, the Queen’s mother-in-law, has also been recognized by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as ‘righteous among the nations’ for saving a Jewish family during the war, and is buried on the Mount of Olives.
As Princess of Greece, she hid Jewish widow Rachel Cohen and two of her five children in her home. Rachel’s husband had in 1913 helped King George I of Greece, in return for which the king offered him any service he could perform, should he ever need it. When the Nazi threat emerged, his son recalled this promise and appealed to the Princess, who duly honoured her father’s pledge. Prince Charles last year fulfilled a longstanding wish to visit his grandmother’s grave.
It’s interesting in this respect that Prince Charles has compared the dangers facing minority faith groups across the world today with the “dark days of the 1930s”.
The Queen herself is a wonderful example of someone who is prepared to make an uncompromising stand for faith and truth, declaring in her latest Christmas message to the nation: “Jesus Christ lived in obscurity for much of his life and was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. Millions now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light of their lives. I am one of them…”
Are we, like the Queen, courageous enough to tell the entire world that we are followers of Jesus and, as such, will do all we can to stand up to the evil that lurks in every dark corner of our land?
Roddie Edmonds was prepared to die for 200 Jewish men. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. But the greatest sacrifice of all was when Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus), “though he had done no wrong”, laid down his life for both Jews and Gentiles on a stake outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City after being “led like a lamb to the slaughter” during the Passover feast (Isaiah 53.7). He bought our pardon; he paid the price.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com