Defying and Outwitting The Nazis in WW2: A Very Sharp Pair of Heroes

Sharp Family Archives
Sharp Family Archives

There are so many unsung WWII heroes and heroines of whom we never hear, so it is fortunate for us that a high school student, working on a history project, was sent by his mother to interview his grandmother. One of the results of that interview is the movie which will be aired towards the end of September, called “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.” The movie is a documentary and deals with various rescue missions, undertaken by the Sharps in Nazi-occupied Europe, during WWII. The movie was co-directed by their grandson Artemis Joukowsky, together with Ken Burns, who is a documentary filmmaker.

Artemis Joukowsky, now a filmmaker himself, was that high school student, and his grandmother, a lady by the name of Martha Sharp. She and her husband, Waitstill Sharp, had been instrumental in the rescue of more than 130 Jewish refugees and political dissidents. Artemis was overwhelmed by her stories, but perhaps even more so by the attitude she inadvertently instilled in him that ‘love is the greatest legacy, and that love of others is the greatest joy in life’. Artemis was also very aware that much of this history had remained hidden for so long and seldom referred to, due, in his opinion, to the fact that both his grandparents had suffered from post-traumatic stress, for they had been deeply distressed by the number of lives that they could not manage to save.

Martha Dickie, a social worker, and Waitstill Sharp, ordained as a minister in the Unitarian Church, were married in 1927. The family moved to Massachusetts in 1937 where Waitstill was installed as minister at the Wellesley Hill Unitarian Church. Two years on, the couple, recruited by the American Unitarian Association, travelled to Czechoslovakia where they joined the program for helping to rescue refugees. From 1939 to 1941, Martha and Waitstill Sharp helped to smuggle many people, fleeing Nazi persecution, out of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Sharp Family Archives
Sharp Family Archives

Their work encompassed processing visa applications, obtaining the necessary visas, utilising a helper network of sympathetic persons, and frequently accompanying the refugees on their dangerous journeys. They often travelled through the centre of Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia, sometimes accompanied by fleeing journalists, doctors, intellectuals, political dissidents, anti-Nazis or even children and mostly, at great risk to themselves.

Once, Waitstill was travelling on a train out of France accompanied by a number of refugees when they found they were being tailed by Vichy French agents. They had to resort to walking over the mountains between France and Spain in order to escape. From Spain, they made their way to Lisbon and then sailed for New York – and freedom.

On a number of the journeys, the Sharps found it safer to disguise themselves as, for example, domestic workers. The risk was always very high, for had they been caught by the Gestapo, there is little doubt that they would have suffered torture and most probably been put to death for daring to help refugees to escape.

After Martha died (in 1990), Artemis was asked to deal with all her papers and documents. He found various lists of names – some were of those who were saved and sadly too – some were of those who were not. The Sharp couple had had to be careful to burn many of the documents in order to hide the nature of some of their missions from the authorities. The number of people saved by the Martha and Waitstill is thus likely to be greater than 130, as is shown by the fact that Artemis continues to hear from people who tell him that it is the Sharps that they have to thank for their being alive today.

The Righteous Among the Nations award, given by Israel to people who risked their lives trying to save Jews from the Holocaust, was awarded to the Sharps posthumously, in 2006.

The rescue missions the Sharps undertook are dealt with in the movie, but in such a way that it provokes thoughts – such as – since one can be sure that humanity will always provide us with such heroes as the Sharps, will we also always have persons such as Hitler? Another thought – which of us has the strength of character, bravery or strength of faith to sacrifice oneself for another? How sad too that the mass exodus from Europe during WW II can in certain respects be compared to the refugee crisis of today, where millions and millions of people worldwide have been forcibly displaced by war, civil wars and by ethnic cleansing, besides the natural droughts and other climatic disasters experienced worldwide. There is much need of heroes of the Sharps’ calibre today too.

Artemis hopes that this movie helps to change American minds regarding refugees; for he points out that we are all immigrants, and that each of us comes from somewhere, and that some of us “had the courage to leave and be an American.” Perhaps this movie will give us all food for thought.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE