New Yorkers of a certain age remember Sonny Fox as the ruggedly handsome, dimple-chinned TV host of Wonderama and Just for Fun. Fox was a genuine, relatable adult who didn’t need outlandish costumes, buffoonery or pies-in-the-face to communicate with his kid viewership.
Fox, who died January 24 of COVID at age 95, always dressed in a suit. He combined natural bonhomie with a sincere interest in his young audience. The mix of cartoons, games, magic tricks and guests (including New York’s Mayor John V. Lindsay and Senator Robert F. Kennedy) was must-watch TV for NY-area kids from 1959 to 1967. Fox was the role model for other such hosts in metropolitan areas nationwide.
But underneath the good cheer was a memory of his service in the U.S. Army in World War II, witnessing perhaps the single greatest act of heroism in protecting American Jews in uniform (who were potentially subject to the same murderous Nazi tactics as their civilian counterparts).
A Jewish teenager from Brooklyn, Fox was drafted into the Army in 1943.
The Nazis captured him at age 19 in the Battle of the Bulge. After three days marching and seven days without food and water in a boxcar, he arrived at Stalag IX-A.
It was essentially a concentration-camp precursor, a far cry from the zany atmosphere of Hogan’s Heroes, a popular 1960s sitcom about POWs.
Fox recalled in decade-old interviews, now on YouTube, that an American POW registering the newly arrived prisoners asked Fox his name, rank and serial number. And then he asked Fox for his religion. “Jewish,” Fox said through the physical and mental fog of no food and little sleep.
“Protestant,” the clerk answered.
Fox thought the clerk hadn’t heard him. “Jewish,” he repeated.
“Protestant,” the clerk said and then dismissed him.
A few days later, Fox understood why. The Nazi guards swept through and seized all prisoners who had answered “yes” or had Jewish-sounding names or “looked Jewish.” They were sent to the Berga concentration camp, many never to return.
On January 27, 1945, Fox was present when the 1,200-plus prisoners assembled, and the camp commandant ordered all Jews to step forward. To do so would undoubtedly have meant execution or slave labor at Berga. But nobody budged, a show of solidarity for the 200 or so Jews scattered among the prisoners,
“We’re all Jews here,” said the POW leader, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, a Methodist from Knoxville, TN.
The commandant muttered that it was not possible that all the prisoners were Jewish. He put his Luger pistol to Edmonds’ head and repeated the demand. Edmonds responded the same way, telling the commandant he would have to shoot not only him but all the prisoners. And if he violated the Geneva Convention, which requires POWs only to divulge name, rank and serial number, the commandant would be tried for war crimes.
The commandant backed off. Fox, among others, was spared. After the war, he found success on the air and as a TV producer. It was a career that came perilously close to never happening,
Fox and the other POWs were liberated in the Spring of 1945 as allied forces swept into Germany and crushed the remaining Nazi defenses.
Edmonds went back to Knoxville and never said anything about the incident. Even his wartime diary was vague. He died in 1985.
It took the ingenuity of his son, Chris, a Baptist minister, to dig up his father’s role in saving the 200 or so Jewish prisoners assembled that day. Fox was one of two surviving POWs recognized by the younger Edmonds in a speech about his father at the 2016 AIPAC meeting.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, posthumously awarded Edmonds the designation of “Righteous Among the Nations,” a recognition reserved for non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
On the 71st anniversary of the incident, then-President Barack Obama attended a ceremony for Edmonds at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Edmonds’ “moral compass never wavered,” Obama said. “He was true to his faith. I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.”
That Fox managed to have such a successful television career after the war is a testament to the human capacity for endurance and renewal.
In one interview, Fox discussed using the camp’s one razor to shave. He washed his socks and dried them on the potbelly stove—all to maintain a sense of life balance.
He recalled thinking the U.S. soldiers who liberated them looked surprisingly well-fed. At 6’3”, Fox weighed a little over 100 lbs.
“Don’t ever surrender,” Fox said in one of the interviews, discussing his main takeaways from the experience. “There’s always a way of keeping yourself together and keeping charge of yourself inside no matter what the circumstances are.”