American couple honored as 'Righteous Gentiles'

It was the spring of 1939, and the doors of Europe were about to be slammed shut on the continent's Jews.

It was the spring of 1939, and the doors of Europe were about to be slammed shut on the continent's Jews. But as a six-year darkness began to spread over Nazi-occupied Europe, an American couple working furtively out of Prague were racing against the clock, just one step ahead of the Gestapo.

Weeks earlier, Waitstill Sharp, a young minister from suburban Boston, and his wife Martha, an experienced social worker, agreed to join a refugee mission to Czechoslovakia sponsored by the Unitarian Church, which was receiving increasingly alarming reports from Prague over the plight of refugees.

Guided by both their faith and humanity, the couple left their two young children in the care of parishioners in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and set sail for war-torn Europe.

In February 1939, the couple, armed with a total of $28,000 in aid money, arrived in Prague - where the largest Unitarian church in the world was based - having set up an underground network of volunteers and agencies that would assist them in getting refugees out.

Bureaucratic hurdles in registering refugees and finding them employment necessary to get emigration visas turned into direct physical peril when the Nazis entered Prague on March 15, 1939.

Undeterred, the Sharps burned their notes and kept no further records, but continued with their work for the next five months, saving Jews and non-Jews alike even after the Gestapo shut down their office at the end of July and threw their furniture into the street.

During this time the Sharps managed to smuggle a Czech parliamentarian and outspoken anti-Nazi dissident - one of several prominent anti-Nazi activists they helped - out of a hospital in a morgue basket, taking her by train to a port in Sweden.

Despite the ever-looming danger that summer, the couple would crisscross Europe, armed with their American passports and scores of dossiers, pressing embassy officials to get people jobs.

In August 1939, following warnings of their imminent arrest by the Gestapo, the couple left Prague separately, one week apart, and headed back to the US. They later learned that they had escaped capture by one day.

Ten months later, the Sharps returned to Europe on a second mission, setting sail for Lisbon, where they set up a refugee office focusing on refugees in France.

They eventually made their way to Vichy-controlled France, which had allied itself with Nazi Germany, seeking to find ways to help fugitives and refugees escape. While in France, they helped a renowned German Jewish author, Lion Feuchtwanger, escape.

In an elaborate plan, which included forged identity cards, bribing French border guards and purchasing first-class tickets, Martha Sharp disguised herself as a peasant and accompanied Feuchtwanger and his wife by train to the French-Spanish border, where her husband was waiting. Eventually, the Sharps arranged for the couple to set sail for New York, after Martha Sharp gave up her own ticket to ensure that they would get out.

During their six-month stay in France, the Sharps worked closely with the noted American rescuer Varian Fry from offices in Marseilles. Martha Sharp managed to get a group of 29 children - nine of them Jewish - out of France as part of the Kindertransport.

In December 1940, after saving around 2,000 people from the Nazis through their church's relief organization, the American couple returned to the US, although the institution they put in place in neutral Portugal continued to function.

After the war, Martha Sharp was involved in many efforts to assist Jews around the world, becoming an active fund-raiser with Hadassah, the women's Zionist Organization of America.

Over the next five decades, the Sharps spoke little of their heroism.

"The whole issue was very private to them. They were very modest people," their daughter Martha Sharp Joukowsky recalled in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. "They didn't know whether or not we would understand the horrors," Joukowsky, a retired Brown University archeologist, said.

"This couple not only had the courage to care, but the courage to act," said Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, who accompanied the family to Jerusalem for the ceremony at Yad Vashem.

The Sharps, who will be posthumously honored at Yad Vashem, are only the second and third Americans, after Varian Fry, to receive Yad Vashem's highest honor.

(From the August 2006 edition)