Posts tagged Yad Vashem

New Year’s Resolutions

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Today is the sixth day of 2019.  How many resolutions have you already made—and broken?

Whatever your views are on the utility of New Year’s resolutions, it is true that the passing of one calendar year, and the dawn of a new one, especially when the days are short and cold, prompts reflection and contemplation.  One remembers past achievements (or failures), and resolves to be a better person (however defined) in the future.

Now, I can offer no special advice or insights in this regard.  But it does seem to me that all too often we judge a person’s worth by the things they have (nice house, fancy car, expensive clothes) rather than by what they do (practice kindness, generosity, empathy).  To the ancient Greeks and our Founding Fathers, character was destiny.  And, as I have discussed (here), without practicing kindness, how can we ever be in a position to do the right thing when we are tested, such as Odd Nansen did, and all those recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among The Nations did, even in the face of mortal danger.

Arne Garborg. Painting by Eilif Peterssen

So, I would like to share with you a quote by a Norwegian, Arne Garborg (1851–1924), who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times:

“For money you can have everything it is said.  No, that is not true.  You can buy food, but not appetite; medicine but not health; soft beds, but not sleep; knowledge but not intelligence; glitter, but not comfort; fun, but not pleasure; acquaintances, but not friendship; servants, but not faithfulness; grey hair, but not honor; quiet days, but not peace.  The shell of all things you can get for money.  But not the kernel.  That cannot be had for money.”

[Thanks to my friend Norma Askeland Smith for introducing me to Garborg.  When Norma’s mother left Norway to get married in America in 1934, Norma’s uncle Gunnar Thompson gave Norma’s mother a book of poetry by Garborg, his favorite writer.  “I like to think this passage meant something to him as well,” she writes.  Gunnar Thompson, a teacher, was arrested by the Nazis on March 15, 1941, was transferred to Sachsenhausen on September 6, 1941, and died there on July 1, 1942, age 34.]

“We are all Jews”

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The month of August is full of anniversaries related to World War II: the bombing of Hiroshima (8/6/45); the surrender of Japan (8/16/45); the Warsaw Uprising (8/1/44); the liberation of Paris (8/25/44); the capture of Sicily (8/17/43); and the Treblinka Uprising (8/2/43), which I recently wrote about here.

Here’s an anniversary you may not be aware of: August 8, 1985: the death of Master Sergeant Roderick (Roddie) Edmonds, age 65.

Master Sergeant Edmonds is not particularly well known here in the U.S. although he deserves to be—he is the first, and only, U.S. serviceman to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions during World War II (and only the fifth American overall to be so honored).

Roddie Edmonds

Born in South Knoxville, TN in 1919, Edmonds enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1941 (i.e., before Pearl Harbor), and had reached the rank of Master Sergeant by late 1944.  As a member of the 422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, he arrived in the European combat zone in December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944.  Three days later, on December 19, he was captured, along with virtually all the soldiers of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments—over 6,000 prisoners captured in one of the largest mass surrenders in U.S. history.  Edmonds was first transported to POW Stalag IX-B, and subsequently moved, along with approximately 1,200 other enlisted Americans, to Stalag IX-A near Ziegenhain, Germany.

Edmonds during the Battle of the Bulge

Although some of the details vary, it appears that on January 27, 1945, Edmonds was ordered by the camp commandant of Stalag IX-A to tell only Jewish prisoners to report the following morning so that they could be segregated from all the other prisoners.  As the senior noncommissioned officer of the camp, Edmonds had overall responsibility for all American prisoners.  He refused, ordering all camp prisoners to report instead.  Seeing this, the commandant retorted in disbelief that not all the prisoners could be Jewish.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

The commandant then threatened to shoot Edmonds if he did not give up the Jewish soldiers.  Edmonds replied: “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”

The commandant backed down, and approximately 200 Jewish soldiers were saved from an uncertain, and possibly deadly, fate as slave laborers.

Stalag IX-A

Edmonds survived captivity, but surprisingly never told his family of his heroic action.  Twenty-four years after his death, in 2009, his son Chris came across a New York Times article about former President Richard Nixon’s purchase of a New York City townhouse from a Lester Tanner.  In the course of Tanner’s interview, he mentioned that he had been saved from likely death by Roddie Edmonds.  This started Chris on an odyssey which led to other Jews who had also been saved, including Irwin (Sonny) Fox, TV personality and former Chair of the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences.

For his actions Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in February 2015, and Chris received the Righteous medal at a ceremony attended by the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and President Barrack Obama.

As Tom Buergenthal has observed in his memoir, A Lucky Child, “What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”

Maybe we’ll never know the answer to that conundrum, but knowing that there are people—like Roddie Edmonds—like Odd Nansen—who did retain the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, should help inspire us all to try and emulate their example.

The Holocaust and Historical Truth

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Today, one day following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Washington Post published a news story about the Polish government’s passage of a law “making it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.”  According to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the law is intended, not to “whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and prevent its distortion.”  Poles particularly object to the use of the term “Polish death camps,” which are Polish only insofar as the Nazis established the so-called Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełźec), and Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Polish soil.  The full text of the article is here.

The law still needs final approval from Poland’s Senate and president to become effective, which is expected.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, said the law was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

History, unfortunately, is never completely black and white.  Poland, as the epicenter of the Holocaust in many ways, has the largest number of individuals (6,706) recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”  This honor is bestowed only on those who, after rigorous investigation, are proven to have taken “great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

These 6,706 represent fully over 25% of all individuals recognized by Yad Vashem.  By comparison, the second highest is the Netherlands, with 5,595 (including Jan and Miep Gies—mentioned here and here—who helped Anne Frank).  Norway has 67, including Sigrid Hellisen-Lund, a friend of Odd Nansen’s who worked closely with him in Nansenhjelpen, the organization he established to help refugees during the interwar period.  The United States has 5.

On the other hand, as Laurence Rees points out in his latest work, The Holocaust: A New History (PublicAffairs 2017):

“Poland, Hungary and Romania all enacted anti-Semitic legislation during the 1930s. . . .   In August 1936, for example, all Polish shops were required to display the name of the owner on their signs.  As a consequence it was obvious which shops belonged to Jews.  The following year Jews were forbidden from entering the medical profession, and restrictions were placed on their ability to practise [sic] law. . ..

The Polish government was also contemplating removing Jews from Poland altogether.  In early 1937 the Poles opened discussions with the French about the possibility of sending large numbers of Polish Jews to the island of Madagascar off the south-east coast of Africa . . ..

The Polish Madagascar initiative acted as a powerful reminder . . . that anti-Semitic initiatives were not just the preserve of the government of the Third Reich.  The desire of other European countries in the 1930s to persecute and even remove their Jews has largely been forgotten in the public consciousness today—dwarfed by the scale and ferocity of the subsequent Nazi Holocaust.”

The final word goes to my old Georgetown professor, Jan Karski (mentioned here), who is described in the article as a “famed resistance fighter” and who nevertheless acknowledged that the Poles’ attitude toward fellow Polish Jews was “ruthless, often without pity.”

While references to “Polish death camps” should more accurately refer instead to “death camps located by the Nazis in Poland,” to outlaw any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust is indeed to “whitewash history.”

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • April 24, 2019: Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
  • April 28, 2019: Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT
  • April 28, 2019: Atria Darien, Darien, CT
  • April 29, 2019: Atria Rye Brook, Rye Brook, NY
  • April 29, 2019: The Watermark, Bridgeport, CT
  • April 29, 2019: Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT
  • April 30, 2019: Solstice of Guilford, Guilford, CT
  • April 30, 2019: The Osborn, Rye, NY
  • May 1, 2019: Meadow Ridge, Redding, CT
  • May 2, 2019: Notre Dame High School, West Haven, CT
  • May 30, 2019: The Glebe, Daleville, VA
  • May 31-June 2, 2019: Georgetown University, Washington, DC
  • June 3, 2019: Brightwood, Lutherville, MD
  • June 11, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC
  • June 25, 2019: Nordic Center, Duluth, MN
  • June 26, 2019: The Colony, Eden Prairie, MN
  • June 26, 2019: The Waters, Edina, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Legends of Cottage Grove, Cottage Grove, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Abiitan, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Norway House, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 28, 2019: Waters at 50th, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 28, 2019: The Kenwood, Minneapolis, MN
  • September 15, 2019: Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, Oslo, Norway
  • September 25-28, 2019: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 14, 2019: Charlestown Sr. Living, Catonsville, MD
  • October 15, 2019: American Scandinavian Society, New York, NY
  • October 17, 2019: 55-Plus Club, Princeton, NJ
  • October 19, 2019: Stonebridge at Montgomery, Skillman, NJ
  • November 1, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • January 21, 2020: Alpha Delta Kappa, Raleigh, NC

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