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Yom HaShoah in Afghanistan

04/18/2017 04:30:02 PM


April 18, 2017
by Cantor David Frommer

This-coming Sunday evening, the Jewish community will begin its observance of Yom HaShoah, in memory of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. I had attended such observances in college and cantorial school, but I had never experienced one within the U.S. military until last year, when I was deployed to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. I was glad to participate, of course, but also curious to see how Holocaust remembrance looked through the eyes of the non-Jewish soldiers who were responsible for planning and coordinating the event.

In addition to the usual features of candle lighting and a moment of silence, the program was highlighted by a non-Jewish captain’s presentation about the remarkable story of Roddie Edmonds—himself a non-Jewish master sergeant who was imprisoned at a Nazi POW camp with 1,275 other soldiers in 1944. The Nazis ordered him, as the senior non-commissioned officer, to have all his Jewish subordinates report to a separate formation the next morning. Edmonds gave the men a different order and when the Nazis arrived to collect the Jewish personnel, they found every one of the 1,275 soldiers standing at attention. “They cannot all be Jews,” the Nazi officer hissed at Edmonds. “We are all Jews here,” he answered. “Have your Jewish men step forward or I’ll shoot you on the spot,” the Nazi shouted, aiming his pistol at Edmonds’ head. “If you shoot me, you’re going to have to shoot all of us, because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war,” he calmly replied. Roddie Edmonds’ valor saved over 200 American Jewish service members that day.

After the Holocaust Remembrance event concluded, everyone was invited to a reception featuring a well-meaning but slightly muddled smorgasbord of “traditional Jewish foods” like brisket, challah and falafel. “Hey, what’s corned beef doing here?” one soldier asked. “I thought that was Irish!” “Definitely,” I explained. “But at some point we realized it was so good we needed it in our delicatessens as well.” “Well, I understand,” he said. “I guess you couldn’t have bacon, so this was the next best thing!”

There were more O’Flannigans and O’Farrells at the event than O’Frommers, and yet they contributed massive amounts of time and energy to ensure it was treated with the utmost respect. The story of Roddie Edmonds’ courage seemed almost difficult to believe but the more I thought about how these non-Jewish soldiers in 2016 had dedicated themselves to executing this event in the first place, assuming a duty that was purely voluntary for a cause to which they had no personal connection, the more I believed that they too would have acted with the same courage as Edmonds, had they been in his place some seventy years ago.

Our country at this time seems to be highlighted more by the differences between its citizens rather than the similarities—by what we all disagree on, rather than by what we share. On this Yom HaShoah, as we appropriately meditate on the suffering and resilience of our own people, let us not forget that there are allies beyond our community who are ready to stand in support of us now, just as they did at far more dangerous times in our history.

Sat, March 17 2018 1 Nisan 5778