Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War, A Documentary by Ken Burns
Waitstill and Martha Sharp at the Christening of their son Hastings, 1932; Sharp Family Archives
"My husband and I felt that something should be done. Refugees in the Sudetenland had been murdered, and people had been imprisoned and hurt."
"I knew I would miss the children terribly, but we would only be away for a few months. I was torn between my love and duty to my children and to my husband."
— Martha Sharp, 1939
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War, scheduled for Tuesday, September 20th on PBS at 9 p.m., is an account of a daring rescue mission that occurred on the precipice of World War II. It tells the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who left their children behind in the care of their parish and boldly committed to multiple life-threatening missions in Europe. Over two dangerous years they helped to save hundreds of imperiled political dissidents and Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation across Europe.
In January of 1939, as Americans remained mostly detached from news reports of the growing refugee crisis in the escalating war in Europe, Waitstill received a call from the Rev. Everett Baker, Vice President of the American Unitarian Association, asking if they would travel to Czechoslovakia to help provide relief to people trying to escape Nazi persecution. He invited Waitstill and Martha to take part in "the first intervention against evil by the denomination to be started immediately overseas." The mission would involve secretly helping Jews, refugees and dissidents to escape the expanding Nazi threat in Europe. If they were discovered, they would face imprisonment, probable torture and death. Seventeen other members of the church had declined. With two young children at home, the Sharps accepted. They expected to be gone for several months. Instead, their mission would last almost two years.
A Refugee in France, photographed by Martha Sharp, 1940; Sharp Family Archives
During this time, the Sharps would face harrowing encounters with Nazi police, narrowly escape arrest and watch as the Third Reich invaded Eastern Europe. Their marriage would be tested severely and the two children they left behind would be saddened by their parents' absence. But dozens of Jewish scientists, journalists, doctors, powerful anti-Nazi activists and children would find their way to freedom and start new lives as a result of their efforts. To recognize their heroic sacrifice, Martha and Waitstill were honored at Yad Vashem in Israel and declared 'Righteous Among the Nations.' Of the thousands so honored, there are only five Americans, including the Sharps.
Defying the Nazis is cinematically told through the letters and journals of the Sharps, with Tom Hanks as the voice of Waitstill and Marina Goldman as the voice of Martha. It features firsthand interviews with the now adult children whom the Sharps saved, as well as leading historians, authors and Holocaust scholars, including William Schulz, Deborah Dwork, Modecai Paldiel, Ghanda DiFiglia and Yehuda Bauer.
Stories of Moral Courage
In advance of the airing of Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War, a new film by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, scheduled for Tuesday, September 20th at 9:00 p.m. on PBS, the Sharp Rescue Committee has issued a Call for Stories of Moral Courage.
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