An American Baptist pastor with an important story to tell arrived in Jerusalem this week for a month-long visit. Chris Edmonds is the son of the first U.S. soldier to be named Righteous Among the Nations for his Holocaust-era heroism.
His father Roderick Edmonds saved 200 American Jewish GIs from transportation to a slave labor camp. Finding himself at the Stalag IX-A POW camp in western Germany, he frustrated Nazi plans to isolate the Jews among the American soldiers, assembling an all-American troop — Jews and gentiles — to report for the roundup and declaring: “We are all Jews here.”
Chris Edmonds’ visit to Jerusalem, and to Yad Vashem in particular, is proving emotional for all who meet him, especially as the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous has just posthumously honored his father with its “Yehi Or” (“Let There Be Light”) Award.
For many, Edmonds’ story epitomizes the idea of the “Righteous Among the Nations” concept. He wasn’t Jewish, but in a terrifyingly dangerous situation he threw his lot in with Jews, and even made hundreds of other Americans indistinguishable from Jewish people. As many see it, this “We are all Jews” ethos stands as the basis of what makes the Righteous Among the Nations so remarkable.
But if heroism transcends color, creed, religion and race, should recognition of heroism be even-handed? A new piece of Knesset legislation — one of the most controversial pieces of Holocaust-tied legislation in memory — suggests that the answer is yes.
If there are Righteous Gentiles, the legislation asks, what about all of the righteous Jews? Shouldn’t their heroism also be recognized? Is it, perhaps, counterintuitive that the only Holocaust-era heroism that the Jewish state formally recognizes is that of non-Jewish people?
Proponents of the legislation, who come from several parties, want Israel to expand its program for honoring the “righteous” to also include Jews. It would give fitting recognition for remarkable acts, be an appropriate way to show regard for Holocaust survivors and inspire future generations. “It is our duty to preserve stories of bravery, especially those of the Jews who risked their lives to save so many others,” said Yael German of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who proposed the bill, which is starting its progress through the Knesset.
The very body that would be tasked with putting German’s legislation into action, if it passes, takes a very different view. Asked for its position on the legislation, Yad Vashem replied that the proposal “is liable to offend the Holocaust survivors.”
Why? Because Jew-to-Jew assistance was very commonplace, and the law could end up putting the actions of survivors under a microscope, standing in judgement over how they behaved, honoring some Jews who are deemed to have conducted themselves heroically according to today’s criteria but becoming “emotionally damaging and judgmental towards Jews who did not act accordingly.”
Critics of the legislation say that every Jew who survived the Holocaust is a hero, and to now start a process that will require delving into their stories is a bad idea — assessing their conduct all those years ago, and raising questions about some who only managed to survive through acts that have played on their consciences ever since.
Moshe Zimmerman, director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at Hebrew University, told me that he considers it “an idiotic idea,” and added: “It’s like a reality competition and I don’t see the value. It has no value at all.” Jews helping Jews, in his view, was “something self-evident.”
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Some will say that nobody should force families to come forward, and those who want to leave their histories closed will be able to. And perhaps there is a case that, like any special citation, this can be reserved for remarkable circumstances. Yet, sometimes a slice of bread saved a life. What kind of criteria can decide between cases without rejecting the image that families carry around for their ancestor? And what makes a case remarkable? Was the same act equally remarkable when it was done to save a spouse, son or daughter as to save a Jew who was a stranger?
Bigger problems have been surmounted, it can be said, and all awards require criteria for assessment. But it can also be argued that every Jew who lived through the Holocaust should be considered to have acted to the best of their personal ability, and it should be left at that.
And what would be the impact on the Righteous Among the Nations status — on the meaningful award that the Jewish state has given to Edmonds and many others, the award that brought his son to Jerusalem this week? Would it devalue this award, by taking away its uniqueness, by detracting attention from the fact that these people have a particular message to humanity, namely the defense of the “other”? Or would it be the ultimate way of underscoring that heroism is universal and that Jews and gentiles worked towards a common admirable end during the darkest of days?
There have been moments in the Knesset’s history in which the weighty responsibility to commemorate the Holocaust in the best way possible has pushed legislators beyond the normal political backbiting and towards careful consideration and wisdom. Here’s hoping that this decision will be taken in that spirit.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.