Dodging Nazis, former Greenfield minister and his wife saved lives

Documentary featuring them part of film festival that starts today

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War,” Wednesday, April 17, 7:30 p.m., National Yiddish Book Center, Amherst. Free.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War,” Wednesday, April 17, 7:30 p.m., National Yiddish Book Center, Amherst. Free.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m., Bay Path College Mills Theater, Carr Hall Longmeadow, free.  Monday, April 8, 7 p.m., Garden Cinema, Greenfield, pre-film “Nosh,” 6:30 p.m.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m., Bay Path College Mills Theater, Carr Hall Longmeadow, free. Monday, April 8, 7 p.m., Garden Cinema, Greenfield, pre-film “Nosh,” 6:30 p.m.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Dirty Dancing,” Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m. (not officially part of the festival) and Saturday, April 13, 8:45 p.m., Pothole Pictures, Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “Dirty Dancing,” Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m. (not officially part of the festival) and Saturday, April 13, 8:45 p.m., Pothole Pictures, Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Paris-Manhattan,” Thursday, April 11, reception at 6:30, film at  7:30 p.m., Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield. Thursday, April 18, pre-film “Nosh” at 6:30 p.m., film at 7 p.m., Garden Cinema, Greenfield.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “Paris-Manhattan,” Thursday, April 11, reception at 6:30, film at 7:30 p.m., Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield. Thursday, April 18, pre-film “Nosh” at 6:30 p.m., film at 7 p.m., Garden Cinema, Greenfield.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Hava Nagila (The Movie),” Tuesday, April 9, 1 p.m., Jewish Community Center, Springfield. Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m., Amherst Cinema, Post-Film Benefit Party.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “Hava Nagila (The Movie),” Tuesday, April 9, 1 p.m., Jewish Community Center, Springfield. Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m., Amherst Cinema, Post-Film Benefit Party.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“The Other Son,” Saturday, April 6, 8:30 p.m., Smith College, Stoddard Hall, Northampton. Tuesday, April 9, 7 p.m., Western New England University, Sleith Hall, Room 100, Springfield.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “The Other Son,” Saturday, April 6, 8:30 p.m., Smith College, Stoddard Hall, Northampton. Tuesday, April 9, 7 p.m., Western New England University, Sleith Hall, Room 100, Springfield.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“The Art of Spiegelman” (above) and “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m., Mount Holyoke College, Dwight Hall, Library Complex.

    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    Image courtesy of PVJFF
    “The Art of Spiegelman” (above) and “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m., Mount Holyoke College, Dwight Hall, Library Complex.

  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War,” Wednesday, April 17, 7:30 p.m., National Yiddish Book Center, Amherst. Free.
  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m., Bay Path College Mills Theater, Carr Hall Longmeadow, free.  Monday, April 8, 7 p.m., Garden Cinema, Greenfield, pre-film “Nosh,” 6:30 p.m.
  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Dirty Dancing,” Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m. (not officially part of the festival) and Saturday, April 13, 8:45 p.m., Pothole Pictures, Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls.
  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Paris-Manhattan,” Thursday, April 11, reception at 6:30, film at  7:30 p.m., Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield. Thursday, April 18, pre-film “Nosh” at 6:30 p.m., film at 7 p.m., Garden Cinema, Greenfield.
  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“Hava Nagila (The Movie),” Tuesday, April 9, 1 p.m., Jewish Community Center, Springfield. Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m., Amherst Cinema, Post-Film Benefit Party.
  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“The Other Son,” Saturday, April 6, 8:30 p.m., Smith College, Stoddard Hall, Northampton. Tuesday, April 9, 7 p.m., Western New England University, Sleith Hall, Room 100, Springfield.
  • Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>Image courtesy of PVJFF<br/>“The Art of Spiegelman” (above) and “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m., Mount Holyoke College, Dwight Hall, Library Complex.

A film featuring a former Greenfield minister and his wife and their heroic rescue work during the Holocaust will be among the highlights of the eighth annual Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival, opening tonight in South Hadley with “The Art of Spiegelman,” a documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Maus.”

The festival will screen 20 award-winning international and independent films at 16 venues throughout the valley, including showings in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls. It will convey stories such as the Israeli Army enlistee-to-be in “The Other Son” who discovers that he’d been switched at birth with the son a Palestinian family from the West Bank, and the love story between a 17-year-old French woman living in Jerusalem and the young Palestinian who responds to her message in a bottle she tossed into the sea out of frustration with the intercultural animosity she sees around her.

“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” is showing Monday at 7 p.m. at Greenfield’s Garden Cinema and the romantic comedy “Paris-Manhattan” is showing there April 18 at 7 p.m. The cult-classic musical “Dirty Dancing” is showing April 12 at 7:30 p.m. and April 13, at 8:45 p.m., at Pothole Pictures, Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls.

The documentary “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War,” which tells the story of minister Waitstill Sharp, who settled in Greenfield decades after traveling with his first wife, Martha, to rescue Holocaust victims in Czechoslovakia and France, will be shown April 17 at 7:30 p.m. in a free screening at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. The entire festival takes place against the backdrop of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on Monday.

The 2012 documentary was made by the minister’s grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III, a graduate of Hampshire College who is also writing a book about the Sharps, who are among the only Americans honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority in Jerusalem, as “Righteous Among the Nations.” He will be part of a panel discussion immediately following the screening.

Nazis at their heels

Sharp, a 37-year-old minister at the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Society, and his 33-year-old wife, Martha, a social worker who’d worked at Chicago’s Hull House, were involved in social and political issues at the church when they received a phone call in January 1939 from the head of the American Unitarian Association asking them to travel to Czechoslovakia to lead an emergency relief mission.

Leaving their two young children behind safely in Wellesley, the Sharps arrived in Prague the following month, just a few weeks before Germany, which had annexed part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, took control of the capital and the rest of the country. They interviewed more than 3,500 endangered Jews and gentiles, according to Keene State College, where three professors played a role in researching the film.

Over the next seven months, Sharp also organized an underground escape path for funds to various English, French and Swiss banks that would aid the Jewish intellectuals, writers, political dissidents and union organizers they had contacted. The couple helped individuals and families by giving them money that allowed them to survive in a country where they had no work, no family and few assets, and they helped refugees escape the country by connecting them with employers and sponsors abroad.

Followed by Nazi police and Gestapo patrols, the Sharps had their offices ransacked, faced arrest for aiding refugees and left Prague in August of 1939, the day after they heard their arrest was imminent. The couple escaped with the Nazis at their heels.

After a brief return to Wellesley, they accepted a mission from the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee to return to war-torn Europe in June 1940. They helped set up and staff the Unitarian Service Committee’s office in Lisbon, a final European refuge city for many escaping the Nazi regime.

They spent most of 1940 working in Vichy-controlled France, where Martha organized delivery of 13 tons of milk products to feed starving infants and arranged for transport of 29 European children to this country. Together, the Sharps helped hundreds of intellectuals, Jews and other at-risk populations flee the country.

“The Sharps’ work was divided, as it would be for the following six years, between relief and emigration assistance,” according to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee website. “Much of their activity involved individual cases, but on one occasion Martha escorted 35 refugees — among them journalists, political leaders, and two children whose parents had committed suicide — to England, and on another arranged for a group of children to leave in cooperation with the organization British Kinderaction. On the night the Nazis entered Prague in early March 1939, the Sharps burned their notes and kept no further records. Their personal peril increased when the Gestapo closed down their office at the end of July, but the Sharps were committed to completing their mission. Waitstill left Prague in early August for a conference in Switzerland but was prevented from returning to Czechoslovakia. Martha departed from Prague alone a week later, learning only afterward that she had escaped capture by the Gestapo by one day.”

The intense danger of their work is reflected in a an account by Martha Sharp in the UUSC site: “I found a taxi in the early darkness, and noting that the driver had a companion in the front seat, gave an address which was near but not actually the one which was my destination. The ‘extra cargo’ tried to engage me in conversation, but I parried his questions. Arriving at the place, I hastily paid the driver (and walked) around the corner, hiding in the first doorway to watch and see whether I was being followed. The ‘companion’ came around the same corner, looked up the street, down an alley or two and then walked along the street. The driver honked. My heart raced as I realized that my follower must be a Gestapo agent. I flattened myself against the entrance and, in the darkness, he walked right by and then headed back toward the cab.”

The Yad Vashem website describes how the Sharps, who sought ways to help Jewish and non-Jewish fugitives escape, learned that the world-famous German-Jewish anti-Nazi author Lion Feuchtwanger needed to be helped out of France immediately with his wife, both of whom were on a Nazi extermination list. In addition to personally escorting the couple to safety across the Pyrenees, Sharp also convinced Otto Meyerhof, a Jewish Nobel Prize recipient, to escape.

Throughout the long trip to the Spanish-Portuguese border, Waitstill watched over Lion Feuchtwanger, keeping inquisitive travelers at a safe distance, so as to lessen the danger of his disclosure by the Spanish police and the risk of his being returned to Vichy French hands, according to Yad Vashem, which named the Sharps as members of its Righteous of the Nations in 2005 and honored them in a ceremony the following year.

The only other American among 21,000 non-Jews who has been so honored is Emergency Rescue Committee head Varian Fry, who worked closely with the Sharps and has been described as “The American Schindler,” a reference to Oskar Schindler, the “Schindler’s List” namesake who is also an honoree.

“It was the greatest episode of my life,” Sharp told Recorder reporter Irmarie Jones of that wartime era in a 1976 interview in Greenfield, to which he moved in 1972 after serving parishes in Iowa, Michigan and then Petersham. (By then, Sharp had divorced Martha and re-married.)

“Waitstill was just extraordinarily intelligent,” recalls Joan Benneyan, now of Brattleboro, Vt., who also moved to Greenfield in 1972 with her husband, Robert. Here the couple met Sharp and his second wife, Monica, who were serving as greeters at All Souls Church soon after. “He could have a conversation with just about anyone about anything. He was just so interested in the world being better and what part he could play, and what part other people could play in that. He knew so much about history … He was always moving forward, trying to bring in more people to the conversation and he really did that almost to the end of his life. He was amazing.”

Mary Siano of Greenfield remembers the “flower communion” services Sharp used to lead at the Greenfield church — a ritual created by Czechoslovakian Unitarian Church founder Norbert Capek and which was brought to this country in 1940 by his wife, who learned after World War II that he had been killed in a Nazi Concentration camp.

“It was very touching to me that this man had such a direct link to this experience and had himself had been instrumental in saving the lives of people,” says Siano, who recalls Sharp as being humble about his extraordinary experience when sharing it with congregants. “I suppose if you really do something that wonderful, you really put it in some perspective, that this was way more important than you.”

Siano adds, “I think he was deeply intellectual, but he had a nice warmth and he could be really funny and it was kind of a treat just to know him.”

Although Sharp, who died in 1984, (Martha died in 1999), could seem like a larger-than-life presence, Benneyan recalls him loving to dramatically read bedtime stories to her children when she and her husband had the Sharps visit for dinner.

“And he loved fire engines,” Benneyan says, remembering a particular Christmas Eve party at their house at which the chimney caught fire and the Greenfield Fire Department arrived.

“Well, he thought that was wonderful and afterward, he asked, ‘Could I get a ride home on your truck? He was like a little boy! It was a riot, that this very worldly, intelligent man still had that side to him.”

Film festival

If the “Two Who Dared” — which is being shown April 17 as part of the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival ­— highlights a personality of special interest to area residents, it’s just one of 20 documentary and dramatic films featured in the Jewish film festival, which is being presented by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and Springfield Jewish Community Center.

“Collectively, the films showcase the rich diversity in the global Jewish community and offer the audience an opportunity to reflect on universal themes as viewed through the lens of Jewish story-telling,” say the festival’s organizers. “There is something for everyone in this year’s festival: thoughtful documentaries about faith, art and history; nail-biting action; moving dramas; and distinctive, coming-of-age stories.”

The films shown — from France, England, Austria, Poland, Germany and Israel as well as this country — range from a documentary about the 96-year-old widow of an Israeli photographer and her grandson (“Life in Stills,” Tuesday at Smith College’s Stoddard Hall); to a documentary about a violinist who helped save Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell and other Jewish musicians from the Nazis and helped form the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (“Orchestra of Exiles,” on Sunday, also at Stoddard Hall); to a French comedy about a woman who escapes her parents’ pressure to marry by seeking refuge in the world of Woody Allen. (“Paris-Manhattan,” April 18, Greenfield).

There are also special events scheduled along with many of the film presentations.

Tickets

Some events are free. Tickets to all events can be purchased at the door, as available. Tickets to some events may be purchased in advance in person or by phone at the Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson St., 413-739-4715. Tickets for some events are only available through theater box offices.

Most films are $9; student and seniors, $7. Four-packs and patron passes available. Check the website for details.

www.pvjff.org

Yad Vashem website’s page on the Sharp family: http://bit.ly/Ydd7yb

“Two Who Dared” website:
www.twowhodared.com/

There is a Kickstarter campaign to promote “Two Who Dared.” The goal is $25,000. The deadline to contribute is May 20. More information is available at www.kickstarter.com/projects/919222951/two-who-dared-the-sharps-war

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 269.

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