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Congressional bills aim to give highest honor to ‘Righteous Gentile’ Roddie Edmonds

“I think it’s a fitting thing that we remember folks like him and the sacrifice they made,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, who is leading House legislation to honor the late army officer who saved 200 Jewish soldiers in World War II.

Historical marker in Knoxville, Tenn., for Roddie Edmonds, Nov. 12, 2020. Credit: Jrryjude via Wikimedia Commons.
Historical marker in Knoxville, Tenn., for Roddie Edmonds, Nov. 12, 2020. Credit: Jrryjude via Wikimedia Commons.

Both houses of Congress reintroduced legislation this week to honor the late Roddie Edmonds, who put his life in danger to save Jews during World War II and the Holocaust, and is one of five Americans Yad Vashem names as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) put the bill up again in the House after an unsuccessful bid last session. This time is different, he told JNS.

“I’ve been here a little longer. I’ve got a little more seniority, and I know a few more people,” he said. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

Burchett noted that the two Jewish members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and David Kustoff (R-Tenn.), are among 15 co-sponsors of H.R. 2800, the Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds Congressional Gold Medal Act

On April 27, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced the Senate’s version of the bill, S.1230, to honor Edmonds, who died at the age of 65 in 1985.

“Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds embodied true American heroism in the face of indescribable evil and intimidation,” stated Blackburn. “Awarding him with Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation is an appropriate way to honor his actions and legacy.”

Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Rafael Warnock (D-Ga.) are co-sponsors.

‘A history with Jewish communities’

An evangelical Christian, Edmonds was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge when Nazi forces captured and transferred him to a prisoner of war camp, where they held him for 100 days.

During that time, German soldiers ordered Jewish prisoners to step outside the prison barracks, ostensibly to separate them and send them to labor and extermination camps. All of 1,275 men under Edmonds stood outside their barracks in unity with Jewish prisoners.

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) Credit: U.S. House of Representatives Official Portrait.

When the Nazis demanded at gunpoint that Edmonds identify personally which soldiers in his company were Jews, he refused. “We are all Jews here,” he said, saving up to 200 Jewish soldiers, whose identities he protected.

Edmonds has been nominated several times for a congressional gold medal but the effort, which requires the support of two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate before it can even make it to committees for discussion, has stalled.

Only 185 Congressional Gold Medals have been awarded since its inception in 1776. Prior recipients include former U.S. presidents—George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Harry S. Truman, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan—as well as world leaders Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Tony Blair, Pope John Paul II and Winston Churchill; and historical luminaries Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Frank Sinatra, Elie Wiesel, Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The effort to award Edmonds, a native of Knoxville, strikes close to home for Burchett and the Tennessee delegation. A marker in downtown Knoxville tells the story of his bravery.

For Burchett, the issue runs even deeper. “My dad fought in the Second World War. My mom lost her brother fighting the Nazis. And my family and I built a Holocaust memorial in Knoxville,” said Burchett, a former Knox County mayor. “I just have a history with Jewish communities.”

Burchett told JNS that he encourages those who want to see the effort to honor Edmonds pushed across the finish line to contact their local representatives.

“I just think it’s so fitting, though he’s no longer with us,” said Burchett. “I think it’s a fitting thing that we remember folks like him and the sacrifice they made.”

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