A unique ceremony honoring Righteous among the Nations will be held at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. President Barack Obama will participate in the event. The event, jointly hosted by the Israeli Embassy, Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem, marks the first time that an American President will participate in a Righteous Among the Nations ceremony and the first time a ceremony recognizing Americans will be held in the U.S.
The Righteous among the Nations, Americans Roddie Edmonds and Lois Gunden and Polish citizens Walery and Maryla Zbijewski, were all recognized by Yad Vashem for risking their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
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Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee, participated in the landing of the American forces in Europe and was taken prisoner by the Germans. In January 1945, the Germans ordered all Jewish inmates in the Stalag IXA POW camp to report the following morning. Understanding the imminent danger in which this would place his fellow Jewish prisoners, Master Sergeant Edmonds ordered all the POWs—Jews and non-Jews alike—to report together. When the German officer in charge saw that all the camp’s inmates standing in front of their barracks, he said: “They cannot all be Jews.” To this Edmonds retorted: “We are all Jews.” Edmonds did not waver, even when the German took out his pistol and threatened to shoot him. “According the Geneva Convention,” said Edmonds, “we have to give only 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.” The German finally gave up and left the scene, and the Jewish POWs were saved from certain death. Paul Stern, one of the Jewish POWs saved by Edmonds recalled: “Although seventy years have passed I can still hear the words he said to the German camp commander.” According to Edmonds’ diary, these events took place on 27 January 1945.
In 1941 Lois Gunden, a teacher of French from Goshen, Indiana, volunteered to work for the Mennonite Central Committee in southern France. She established a children’s home in Canet Plage, which became a safe haven for a number of children, including Jewish children whom she helped smuggle out of the nearby Rivesaltes internment camp. Gunden pleaded with the parents to separate from their children and give them to her in order to save them from deportation. Ginette (Drucker) Kalish, one of the children saved by Lois Gunden, told Yad Vashem: “At the time I was 12 years old and certainly scared, but Lois Gunden was kind and passionately determined to take me and these other Jewish children… to protect them from harm.” Gunden fearlessly protected the children when the French police arrived at the home, and ran the children’s center even after the United States entered the war and she became an enemy alien. She continued her work until January 1943, when she was detained by the Germans, only to be released in 1944 in a prisoner exchange.
On July 22, 1942, the Germans began mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto. By September 21, Yom Kippur, some 260,000 inhabitants of the ghetto had been deported to the Treblinka extermination camp, where they were murdered. Janina Ferster and her daughter Elzbieta managed to flee the ghetto and go into hiding. After staying for two months at the home of acquaintances, Tadeusz and Eugenia Kucharski, who also received recognition as Righteous, Janina brought her daughter to the home of Walery and Maryla Zbijewski, until she was able to rent an apartment under a false name and take her daughter back. Despite the enormous danger – the Germans publicly announced that helping Jews would be punished by death – the Zbijewskis cared for Elzbieta and protected her until her mother was able to collect her.