Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp and their family.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They bullied and bluffed, bamboozled and bedeviled bureaucrats, politicians and soldiers.
They climbed mountains and traversed other treacherous terrain. They fed the hungry and clothed the nearly naked. They smuggled refugees out of countries in which they were in mortal danger, into other lands, some of whose borders were supposed to be closed and most that were unenthusiastic about accepting the fugitives. They regularly risked their lives.
Leaving their two young children with friends, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha did all that and more in their efforts in 1939 and 1940 to rescue Jews and others fleeing or hiding from the Nazis.
Their remarkable story is told by their grandson Artemis Joukowsky in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War
, which complements the documentary of the same name, co-directed by him and the well-known American filmmaker Ken Burns.
Both works are based on a thorough study of the Sharps’ papers and interviews with those whose lives intersected with the couple.
It is difficult to quantify the Sharps’ efforts, their grandson writes. However, in the few months they were in Czechoslovakia and later for a short time in Vichy France, they apparently helped about 125 people flee to freedom from an almost- certain death at the hands of the Nazis. The two also provided money for transportation and clothes for other people to get to ports where their visas would allow them to escape.
In addition, the Sharps set up a feeding program in Prague that kept 264 people alive long enough to get out and provided milk for 800 starving French children for a month.
Even more amazing than the “what” is the “how.” Neither had much experience or training in deception, covering their trails or money laundering. But because the Nazis were stealing money sent by legal means, Waitstill Sharp set up bank accounts in neighboring countries by which he would receive money from donors and disburse funds to refugees from those bank accounts.
He also illegally exchanged dollars for Czech currency, because people allowed to leave were forbidden to take out any hard currency. Operating as an illegal money changer left Sharp with suitcases of local currency. With that money, he donated funds to the Salvation Army in Prague, which was feeding thousands of Social Democrats who were living on the streets or underground to avoid being captured by the Germans. He also gave large sums to the YMCA to expand its summer-camp program and for the reconstruction of a refugee orphans’ home.
Helping those that the Nazis wished to kill or capture was extremely dangerous.
A day or two before leaving Prague, an informant told Martha she was on a list of people the Nazis intended to imprison.
What motivated these two to undertake such a dangerous assignment – so risky that 17 other Unitarian ministers had turned down the offer of going to Europe before the Sharps finally accepted? On a ship back to America, German- Jewish writer and anti-fascist activist Lion Feuchtwanger, who had been rescued from his hiding place in southern France by Waitstill Sharp, asked his rescuer what motivated him to do what he was doing.
He received no money for saving people, the Unitarian minister assured the writer, and he was a sinner and no saint.
“But I believe the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit,” Sharp continued. “So I do what I do without any piety at all but ad magna gloria libertatis humani spiriti [to the greater glory, freedom of the human spirit].
“As my friend Dick Ball said, ‘I don’t like to see guys pushed around.’” Upon her return to America, Martha Sharp, among other activities, helped in fund-raising with Youth Aliya, the Hadassah program that rescued European children and brought them to Palestine. In 1947, Hadassah sent her to pre-state Israel to see firsthand and learn about programs she had been supporting.
Later, she wrote of what she had seen during her six-week stay: “A great powerful stream of sacrifice and idealism is bringing about the birth of a nation. We are witnessing an epic like that of America. The pioneers are giving their lives and are challenging us to help in time.”
In 2006, Martha and Waitstill Sharp were named “Righteous Among the Nations.”
It was an honor duly earned. The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.