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Escape: ‘Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War’ provides a personalized account of escaping Hitler

  • Waitstill and Martha Sharp and their children, Martha Content and Hastings. Contributed photo

  • Waitstill and Martha Sharp. Contributed photo

  • Waitstill and Martha Sharp. Contributed photo



Recorder Staff
Sunday, October 02, 2016

From the time he moved to Greenfield in 1972 with his second wife, Monica, until his death a dozen years later, retired minister Waitstill Sharp hardly ever made known his past, as someone who helped rescue hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees from Nazi Germany during World War II.

Sharp, whose story was recently shared in a Ken Burns documentary that aired on PBS, gave many guest sermons at All Souls Church without ever describing the perilous mission he undertook to Prague in 1939. Traveling with his first wife, Martha, at the behest of the American Unitarian Association, they left their young children, 2 and 7, behind and risked their own lives to rescue strangers from Hitler’s Germany. If they had been discovered, they would have faced imprisonment and death.

It was the Unitarian Church’s first-ever international relief effort.

In his new book, Artmeis Joukowsky, who co-directed the new documentary along with his fellow Hampshire College graduate, Burns, reveals how on visits to Greenfield while a student in Amherst, he reconnected with his grandfather without delving into the stories he first heard from Martha Sharp, his gratndmother when he was asked to write a paper in high school on the subject of moral courage.

“Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” (Beacon Press, $25.95) presents a more personalized account of the story, and of the effects on the Sharps than what public television viewers watched on Sept. 20.

“We attended church together regularly on Sundays, and we often discovered religion, faith and its role in both his public and private life,” writes Joukowsky of his grandfather, who lived on High Street. Though retired, he continued to deliver guest sermons from time to time. I attended a few of them … Each was fully considered and powerful. If there was an overarching theme to them, it was the importance of finding the joy of serving others. The past seemed to interest him only insofar as it illuminated the present.”

The Sharps, over the course of several tours of war-torn Europe between 1939 and 1945, secured travel documents, escorting and making travel arrangements for Social Democrats, Jews, artists, philosophers and others trying to escape Hitler, and getting them food for survival and money to help their escape.

Followed by Nazi police and Gestapo patrols, the Sharps had their offices ransacked and faced arrest for aiding refugees and left Prague in August 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.

Through Joukowsky’s efforts to make his grandparents’ story known, in 2006, they were honored as one of only five Americans proclaimed “Righteous Among the Nations” by the state of Israel.

Most of the information for Joukowsky’s book about his grandparents came from more than 200,000 documents — personal letters, official reports, handwritten notes, datebills and more — that he went through after his grandmother’s death in 1999, as well as from the Sharps’ oral histories, Waitstill Sharp’s unpublished autobiography and several of the unpublished manuscripts of Martha Sharp, who went on after the war to work for Hadassah and in the Truman administration.

According to Joukowsky, a 1972 Recorder interview that reporter Irmarie Jones provided was the first detailed public account that the retired minister gave of his adventures. He described them as, “the greatest episode of my life. I had a ringside seat to history.”

In the forward of the 255-page book, Burns writes that the story of the Sharps, “reads like a spy novel, but it’s all true. (It) explores that rare level of character — selfless sacrifice for the greater good — that we have always admired and celebrated in this country. The Sharps saw there was a job to be done and, quite simply, did it. Their objective was to rescue enemies and victims of the Nazis. Personal glory wasn’t the point. It was just the right thing to do.”

Through his exhaustive research, years producing the documentary and writing the first definitive book about their work, Joukowsky has made it his business to see that their story is not forgotten.

He recalls — and answers — the question his grandmother often asked him: “What are you going to do in your life that’s important?”