Two Who Defied the Nazis: The Story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp
Forward by Ken Burns
Many people approach me to collaborate on films with them. Usually I decline for the simple reason that I’m involved in too many full-time projects of my own. I expected to respond exactly this way when my friend Artemis Joukowsky sent me an early very rough cut version of his documentary, which, like this book, recounts the amazing and largely unknown saga of his grandparents, Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his social worker wife, Martha Sharp. On the eve of World War II, the Sharps ran toward, not away from, what Winston Churchill called the “gathering storm.” They helped dozens and dozens of people to escape, many of whom surely would have died in the war and the holocaust.
I agreed to look at his film, fully expecting that a few minutes in I’d decide that the project wasn’t for me. Yet what I saw turned out to be an extraordinary diamond in the rough. I’m interested only in stories that talk to us about us. Who are we? is the driving question in all the work I do. And here was a story that answered that basic question in a dramatic, compelling and unexpected way.
I saw in the Sharps an exceptional couple. While their story is clearly heroic, it’s also nuanced and complex, full of unexpected turns and dangerous “undertow.” It took both personal courage and the strong moral calling of their Unitarian faith to face the dangers they did and to sacrifice so much of their emotional lives to serve desperate refugees. These two “ordinary” people—a minister and his wife, a father and a mother—left the quiet, snug and secure world of Wellesley, Massachusetts, for prewar Prague and later Vichy, France, where they mastered the dark arts of espionage in order to outwit the Nazis. They devised codes, and found ways to detect and defeat surveillance, lose people tailing them, finesse Fascist bureaucrats, launder money (Waitstill’s specialty), and smuggle to safety everyone from toddlers to so-called
Kulturträgers—artists, intellectuals and scientists at the top of Hitler’s most-wanted list. This is not the stuff they teach in divinity school!
So I surprised myself—and possibly Artemis too—when I agreed to help. Soon I was drawn into the project not just as an advisor but as co-director and executive producer, fully invested in telling the Sharps’ fascinating and truly American story.
We live in such a narcissistic age that it is difficult today to conceive how the Reverend and Mrs. Sharp--so deeply connected to their church and congregation, their community and their family--would willingly give up their comfort and safety to lead double lives in order to save the lives of strangers amid the daily horrors and deprivations of wartime Europe.
Defying the Nazis hooks you, catches you up in the narrative and pulls you along by all the elements of great storytelling. Will the secret police finally stop them? Will they be captured or killed? Whom can they trust? What risks are they willing to take? Ultimately, will they save these people?
It reads like a spy novel, but it’s all true.
The reason I call Defying the Nazis an American story is that it explores that rare level of character—selfless sacrifice for the greater good—that we have always admired and celebrated in this country. Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called it “the better angels of our nature.”
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.
Their story also transforms and deepens our understanding of the Holocaust. The notion of six million dead horrifies us, yet the massive number numbs and insulates us from the full reality of individual suffering. Existing records show that the Sharps rescued somewhat over one hundred people. Much documentation is missing, so the number is likely higher. At first, any number might seem inconsequential compared to six million murdered Jews or the obscene total of nearly sixty million human beings killed in the course of the Second World War.
It is clear that nothing gets done except by individual acts of courage, individual initiative. When someone risks his or her own life to safe a stranger’s life, you get a sense of what real heroism is.
You also can begin to sincerely grieve for those people who did not get out alive, for those who could not be saved.
Through their existential commitments and actions, Waitstill and Martha help us understand our own fundamental obligation to each other. Martha once said that neither she nor Waitstill saw themselves as anything but ordinary, that anyone else in their circumstances would have acted in the same way. It’s hard for me to believe that’s true, but their remarkable story shows us why we should at least try.