The Rev. Sharp was minister of the Unitarian church in Wellesley, Mass., now the Unitarian Universalist Society in Wellesley Hills, and his wife was a social worker when they accepted a call in 1939 from leaders of the American Unitarian Association, the forerunner of the Unitarian Universalist Association. They were asked to go to Prague to assist members of Unitaria, the large Unitarian church in Czechoslovakia, and to conduct rescue and relief efforts.
Leaving their two small children in the care of parishioners, they traveled to Europe in 1939 and again in 1940, spending more than six months of each year there providing relief aid to thousands and helping hundreds to escape. Their work led to the founding of what is now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who died in 1984 and 1999, respectively, received the same “Righteous Among Nations” honor at a ceremony June 13 at Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial. The Sharps are only the second and third U.S. citizens named to that honor roll of some 20,000 non-Jews who helped to rescue Jews during the war. Martha Sharp is the first American woman to receive this honor.
The Sharps also were honored by the U.S. Senate on September 8 with a resolution recognizing them as “genuine U.S. heroes.” The resolution was sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). The Sharps lived in Massachusetts. Their daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, lives in Providence, R.I.
In the ceremony at the Washington, D.C., museum, a plaque was unveiled on the museum’s “Rescuers Wall,” in a black granite-walled room where an eternal flame burns. The Righteous Among Nations appellation is the highest honor Israel can bestow on non-Jews.
Among those attending the Washington ceremony were Joukowsky and other family members including Martha and Waitstill Sharps’ grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III, whose research resulted in the honoring of his grandparents; several Holocaust survivors; Sen. Reed; Charlie Clements, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; the Rev. William F. Schulz, chair of the UUSC’s Board of Trustees; and the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
At the ceremony, Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director, spoke about the Sharps’ courage. “Few people found it within themselves to risk danger by helping their neighbors during the Holocaust,” she said. “That they were willing to leave the safety of the United States to save strangers in Europe . . . serves as an inspiration to us today.”
The Sharps arrived in Prague in February 1939 where they arranged for food and other relief for thousands of refugees and helped others escape the country, which had just come under Nazi control. They worked in Prague until August when they fled following warnings of possible arrest by the Gestapo. They returned to America, but the following year made a second trip to assist with refugee relief. On that trip they helped many more emigrate, including 29 children whose safe passage Martha arranged.
The Sharps’ work led to the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee in 1940. The organization, now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, has 32,000 members, supporters, and volunteers. It works to defend civil liberties, protect access to democratic processes, promote environmental justice, and advance economic justice. It also responds to disasters, especially where human rights are threatened.
Several times during the ceremony at the Washington, D.C., Holocaust Museum references were made to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, where an estimated 400,000 have been killed and two million forced to leave their homes. “The legacy of the Sharps,” said Schulz, “is that we are inspired in some way to get involved.” He said the Sharps’ accomplishments were made possible by many supporters. “Not every one of us can visit the refugee camps of Darfur or the U.S. detention camps in Iraq or Afghanistan or God knows where else,” he said. “But every one of us can be a part of the lives of those who do. Every one of us can be part of institutions that make such heroism possible and in that measure can claim a degree of kinship with the righteous among the nations.”
The ceremony at the museum took place just three days before a massive rally on Sunday, September 17, in New York’s Central Park organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, which includes the UUA, the UUSC, and the Washington Holocaust Museum. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 attended the rally.
Before the rally, 300 to 400 Unitarian Universalists and others gathered at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Lexington Avenue for a pre-rally.
Adam Gerhardstein, legislative assistant for international issues at the UUA’s Washington Office, attended both rallies, which he described as calls to action. “They brought out how critical it is for people of conscience to recognize the genocide and take action,” he said. “We need to make our voices heard and let our leaders in Washington and at the UN know this is a top priority for us.”
The UU contingent filled the sidewalk for two city blocks as it walked the 17 blocks from All Souls to Central Park.
Clements, speaking at the All Souls pre-rally, encouraged UUs to keep pressuring the White House to act on Darfur by calling and visiting their senators and representatives. “For everyone who visits, they know there are a thousand thinking about it and that has a lot of impact,” he said. He also urged them to call their Congress members often. “Do it automatically, just like brushing your teeth.”
He estimated half of all UU congregations are involved in some way with Darfur, and said he was especially encouraged by the high number of youth and young adults who attended the rallies.
Clements escorted Rosemarie Feigl to the All Souls rally. Now 80 and living in New York, she was one of the hundreds of people the Sharps helped to escape and settle in the United States. Feigl had planned to attend the Holocaust Museum ceremony in Washington on Thursday, but was prevented by illness. But she wanted to participate in Sunday’s rally for Darfur. Clements said she told him earlier in the week, “If the Sharps could do what they did then I can go to the rally Sunday.”
Last November Sinkford and Clements visited Chad, just across the border from Darfur, and spoke with many refugees. Sinkford, in a message read at the All Souls rally, urged support of the United Nations, which has authorized a peacekeeping force that has not yet been deployed. “By raising our voices we can support the United Nations in concert with others around the world who stand with the millions afflicted in Darfur,” his message said. “Their suffering is beyond heartbreaking. But I find hope in knowing that we have the power to alleviate their misery and to stop the genocide.”
- Unitarian couple honored for World War II rescues
- Unitarian Universalists rally for end to genocide
- Dispatch from Chad. UUA President William G. Sinkford’s journal of his November 2005 trip to Darfurian refugee camps in Chad. (UUA.org)
- Heroes' dilemma How much would you sacrifice
- U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Recognized the Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp as Righteous Among Nations for their work in rescuing victims of Nazi persecution. Provides background information on the Sharps. (ushmm.org)
- Ceremony honoring UUSC founders provides call to action to end Darfur genocide. UUSC coverage of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum ceremony. (UUSC.org)
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum Honors Unitarians. UUA coverage of Sharps’ award. (uua.org)
- Save Darfur Coalition. Alliance of more than 100 faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organizations including the UUA and UUSC. (savedarfur.org)
- Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. UUA associate member organization with campaign to help Darfur. (UU-UNO.org)