Righteous among the nations

Martha Sharp illustration

From the archives: Israel honors two Unitarians for rescuing refugees in World War II; their story provokes soul-searching today.

Image: © Richard Jones

© Richard Jones


On a snowy night in Prague in 1939, Martha Sharp jumped from a taxi, darted around a corner, and flattened herself into a doorway. The heels of a pursuing Gestapo agent clicked past her. She entered an unlit apartment building, dashed up five flights of stairs, and rang the bell of a known anti-Nazi leader.

Six weeks earlier Martha, a social worker trained at Hull House in Chicago, and her husband, the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, minister of the Unitarian Church of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, had left their young children behind in the United States. They had volunteered for a relief effort in Czechoslovakia, sponsored by the American Unitarian Association. Then on March 15, 1939, the Nazi army marched into Prague and occupied the city. Their humanitarian refugee operation instantly changed into a treacherous, cloak-and-dagger mission.

That March night a woman opened the apartment door to Martha, denying she had even heard of the man Martha was asking for. “I begged,” Martha recounted the story later to a biographer. “I told her there was little time. I produced my American passport. When she saw it, she said in Czech, ‘A moment,’ and then snatched my passport from me and shut the door in my face.” For the next few minutes Martha frantically worried whether she’d see her passport again.

But the door did open, and this time a man stood before her. Martha asked if he was “Mr. X,” as Martha later referred to him when she told the story. He said he could give Mr. X a message. She explained she had been charged by a group of British and American refugee workers with transporting him to the British Embassy so he could be smuggled from the country. The man asked her to wait a moment, then disappeared into the apartment. He opened the door again, wearing an overcoat. He handed Martha her passport and said, “I am Mr. X.”

Together, they walked through wind and snow across the city. A Nazi soldier stopped them when they reached a bridge over the Vltava River. Martha produced her passport and confidently announced, “Americans!” They were waved across the bridge, then stopped by another soldier on the other side. The passport trick worked again.

Just steps outside the British embassy, a third Gestapo officer stopped them. Martha began to loudly complain about the lack of taxis and her frustration at being late for a meeting with the embassy secretary. She flashed her passport and demanded the guard tell the secretary, “Mr. and Mrs. Sharp are here.” He waved them ahead to speak with a British guard, and Martha and Mr. X walked into the embassy to safety. Martha then returned to her apartment, where Waitstill was returning from a similar mission. They watched out their window as Nazi soldiers looted Prague stores and warehouses.

The rescue of Mr. X is one of hundreds that the couple orchestrated, helping Jews and non-Jews, intellectuals, political leaders, writers, artists, and children flee to safety from the Nazis. Yet the heroism of Martha and Waitstill Sharp is just beginning to be recognized.

Martha Sharp and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp

Martha Sharp and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp wave goodbye as they embark for Europe to carry out a rescue and relief operation in 1939.

UUSC Archives

This June they will be honored posthumously as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel. The award has recognized more than 20,000 non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Martha and Waitstill Sharp are the second and third Americans to receive that honor, joining only a handful of non-Europeans, and Martha is the only American woman. The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and Charlie Clements, president and chief executive officer of the UU Service Committee, plan to travel to Israel for the ceremony.

All the current attention has the potential to elevate the standing of both the denomination and the service committee in the eyes of the world, Clements says. The Unitarian couple is being honored in several cities, a documentary is in the works, and Hollywood is contemplating a feature film.

Now an independent human-rights organization, the UUSC traces its origins to the Sharps’ Czech refugee operation. They were among the five cofounders of the Unitarian Service Committee, which was officially formed in 1940 to provide humanitarian relief both in this country and abroad. In the years following, Martha and Waitstill Sharp set up the service committee’s first overseas office in Lisbon and did speaking tours to raise funds.

The story of the Sharps’ World War II heroism was little known outside their own circle until their grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III, began piecing it together in recent years. With help from his brother Michael, he sifted through thousands of documents across Europe and the United States and tracked down refugees that his grandparents had rescued.

“I want to inspire a new generation of people to do this kind of work,” Joukowsky says. “I’m interested in challenging the population to say, What are we going to do to stop the world from allowing a genocide like this from ever happening again?”

The story of the Sharps’ altruism and courage illuminates some of the dilemmas that perplex people who care about social justice. The world is so filled with pain—the genocide in Darfur, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global AIDS pandemic, and human-rights abuses in countries around the world top a very long list. How many of us have yearned to go to the world’s troubled spots and do our part, yet held back, uncertain how to balance doing good in the larger world with doing right by our families and local communities?

Taking a courageous stand does not require sacrifices and heroics on the scale of the Sharps. “It is easy to feel small in comparison to Waitstill and Martha Sharp,” the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, retiring executive director of Amnesty International USA and former UUA president, said at a December ceremony honoring the couple at the UU Society of Wellesley Hills. “Not every one of us can set out for war-torn Europe. 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. But every one of us can be a part of the lives of those who do. Every one of us can be a part of institutions that make such heroism possible and in that measure can claim a degree of kinship with the righteous among the nations.”

Joukowsky has two hopes for what can be accomplished by telling his grandparents’ story now—one public and one personal. First, he wants their story to inspire others, not overwhelm them. “Life is made of righteous moments, not grandiose moments,” he says, “making choices where you reflect on how you treat everyone in your life. The key part about my grandparents wasn’t just one big moment. They made thousands of little choices that led up to the story that we now tell.”

In particular, Joukowsky and the UUSC want to call attention to parallels between the Sharps’ work in Nazi-occupied Europe and humanitarian work today in the Darfur region of the Sudan. The UUSC has received a grant from the Righteous Persons Foundations, funded by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, to promote the Sharps’ work and its links to the committee’s continuing work to stop genocide.

“We have no interest in merely celebrating their heroism, and I think their family would agree with us,” UUSC president Clements says. “It is our intention to celebrate their heroism and redirect people’s attention on to the slow genocide in Darfur today. We want to inspire activism by asking: How will our grandchildren celebrate our righteousness in regard to the inhumanity that occurs on our watch?”

In his research Joukowsky uncovered a tremendous network of people who made his grandparents’ work possible: church members and family friends who cared for their children; legions of contacts of many faiths throughout Europe; fellow cofounders of the Unitarian Service Committee, Robert and Elisabeth Dexter and the Rev. Dr. Charles Joy; and Unitarians around the country who donated money to support their efforts. This is the kind of network that is also needed today, he says, to end the suffering in Darfur and other chaotic places in the world.

Joukowsky also has a very personal reason for bringing the story to light now. He hopes that the restored history will be healing for a family that came apart as his grandparents left to save the world. His mother and her brother were three and eight when their parents left for Czechoslovakia. Soon after returning to the United States, the couple divorced.

“There’s no question that the work my grandparents did in Europe redirected their lives,” Joukowsky says. “They were never the same people again. It’s not a choice I would have made.”

Some may view leaving home, church, and children as a necessary sacrifice, while others may see it as abandonment. “My parents were extremely gifted, courageous people, and they really designed their lives around helping people,” recalls daughter Martha Sharp Joukowsky, a retired Brown University archaeology professor, now at work on a book about her Jordanian excavations. Yet when she was a teenager and her parents were divorcing, a judge asked her: “Which one of them do you want to live with?” Her reply: “Neither one of them.”

She recounts this matter-of-factly, without bitterness. “They hadn’t really been my parents. We sort of raised ourselves. I came to grips with it years ago, when I was in my thirties with children of my own. I knew I had to take care of myself. My destiny was to be of my own making. Perhaps I am more like my mother than I think I am.”

Artemis Joukowsky tries to imagine the way his grandmother would have framed the choice to leave her children behind. “She asked herself, What is a life worth? And what would I be willing to do to save it? She decided that saving other people’s lives and helping this terrible crisis was worth the tradeoff. She knew her children were being loved and cared for and would ultimately understand that her being away from them would be understood in the larger context of what was going on in the world. But it was not easy. My grandparents made the decision they made, and they suffered about it all their lives. It’s evident in their journals and their letters.”

Joukowsky was in his early teens before he began to grasp the magnitude of his grandparents’ accomplishments and sacrifices. As an eighth grader in New York City, Joukowsky chose his grandmother to interview for a school assignment. Their talks filled five audiocassettes, and his stunning report of rescue and self-sacrifice earned him an A.

“My grandmother and I became very close through this assignment,” he says. “I felt that her story had some connection to what I was going to do.”

From the time he was a child into adulthood, Joukowsky remembers her asking him: “What are you going to do that is important in your life?” Even at 44, a married father of three, venture-capital investor in socially responsible businesses, book author, and philanthropist, he still hears her words.

As a child, Joukowsky always answered the same way: “I’m going to overcome my disease,” referring to his lifelong battle with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive illness. Today he has become an advocate for disability rights and is the author of Raising the Bar: New Horizons in Disability Sports.

“The influence of who his grandmother and grandfather were to him have taken shape in his life and grabbed hold of him and what he does,” says the Rev. Rosemarie Smurzynski, who was once his minister at the Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, Massachusetts. “I do feel that their spirit lives in him.”

While growing up, Joukowsky had little contact with his grandfather. After the war, Waitstill worked for the United Nations Relief Agency in Cairo and at the Council Against Discrimination in Chicago. But his true calling was in parish ministry, and he served several New England churches during the rest of his career.

Joukowsky got a chance to know him better while attending Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a short drive from Greenfield, where his grandfather had retired. One weekend a month Joukowsky visited his grandfather and asked him about his family’s World War II saga. During the war, Waitstill had concentrated on securing the underground escape route for refugees, about which little is still known. Later Waitstill remarried, and he didn’t speak much about his life with Martha around his new wife. “I would ask him about my grandmother when his wife went to bed,” Joukowsky remembers. “He would light up, and I could tell he was still very much in love with her.”

After both Joukowsky’s grandparents had died—Martha in 1999, and Waitstill in 1984—learning more about their story became a kind of calling for him. He began to sort through thousands of pages of manuscripts and documents, including his grandmother’s thick FBI file. In 1946 Martha Sharp ran for Congress against Joseph W. Martin Jr., a powerful Massachusetts Republican who became Speaker of the House the following year. Martin ran a smear campaign, insinuating that her work to free opponents of Spanish dictator Ferdinand Franco in 1944 betrayed communist leanings. Martha Sharp was not a communist, but J. Edgar Hoover personally wrote a letter authorizing an FBI investigation.

She lost the election but later worked for the National Security Resources Board under the Truman Administration. And she continued her social-justice work throughout her life—helping found Children to Palestine, an interfaith effort to bring European Jewish refugee children to new homes in what is Israel today; and serving on the board and fundraising for Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization.

Joukowsky also tracked down people Martha had rescued and aided. He traveled to the French village of Pau, where his grandparents had arranged for a supply of milk for undernourished children in 1940. In 2005 Pau honored the Sharps with the village’s medal of honor.

His efforts have uncovered dozens of new stories about the Sharps. He learned that his grandparents had rescued Lion Feuchtwanger, a prominent German novelist who was on the Nazi’s most-wanted list, and smuggled him into the United States.

And Joukowsky has illuminated details about Martha Sharp’s 1940 rescue of twenty-nine children out of Europe. One of them was Rosemarie Feigl. Two years earlier Feigl had fled her home in Vienna with her parents after the devastation of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues that marked the beginning of the Holocaust. What she remembers most clearly about her elegant American savior was her fancy hat with a long pheasant feather. The 14-year-old Feigl wore a hat, too—a beige beret. The twenty-eight other children wore hats just like it to help keep them together as Martha Sharp led them across Europe to Portugal. There they boarded a ship sailing to the United States in December 1940. Most of the children were Czech and Austrian. “They weren’t all Jewish,” Feigl recalls. “They were just children whose parents felt the need to get them out of this terrible dilemma they were in.”

A year after Feigl arrived in the United States, her parents followed. Martha Sharp also arranged their departure. “Mrs. Sharp risked her safety and her life, when she didn’t even know us,” says Feigl, now a 79-year-old decorative painter who lives in Manhattan. “She certainly wasn’t Jewish. There was no reason for her to do it other than her strength of character.”

In the course of telling her story to the Yad Vashem award committee, Feigl has gotten to know her rescuers’ children and grandchildren, and they in turn have cherished getting to know her. “What happened to [my mother] as a child wasn’t in vain,” Joukowsky says. “When you can meet someone like Rosemarie Feigl, who is such a grateful, loving soul, she is so clear that her life would have ended without my grandmother.”

Never celebrated for their World War II heroism in their lifetimes, the Sharps are being widely toasted today.

In addition to the celebrations in Wellesley Hills, France, and Israel, the Sharps were also honored on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April at Martha’s alma mater, Pembroke College, which is now part of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

In Sherborn, Massachusetts, where Artemis Joukowsky lives, the Peace Abbey, a multifaith retreat center, honored the Sharps with a ceremony and a plaque in May, which will be hung near statues of Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and other peacemakers.

Discussions are under way with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to cosponsor other events around the country to celebrate the Sharps’ heroism.

The Joukowsky family commissioned Ghanda Di Figlia to write a biography of Martha Sharp. Artemis Joukowsky is working with New Hampshire filmmakers Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan to create a documentary about his grandparents. He and Clements have also been meeting with Hollywood producers interested in a story of “American Schindlers.”

Martha and Waitstill Sharp would almost certainly be embarrassed by the spotlight now trained on them, family members say. “My parents were very modest people,” daughter Martha Sharp Joukowsky says. “I think they would have been the first to say that there were many other heroes. The fact that they have been singled out now is really astonishing to me, and it wouldn’t have been done were it not for the intervention of my boys. I am so prideful that they have been.”

At the ceremony at the UU Society of Wellesley Hills, Artemis Joukowsky asked: “As we celebrate our grandparents’ faith and courage today, we must all ask ourselves, how will our grandchildren celebrate ours tomorrow? Let the recognition of their heroism stand as a call to action. Let us ask ourselves, Who are the righteous among the nations today? Who will take risks on behalf of unknown others now? We cannot all take physical risks, but who will take the risk of speaking out? Who will take the risk of bearing witness to the inhumanity of this era?”

Telling his grandparents’ story is a way to pass along the question that Martha Sharp posed to him throughout his life, to ask a new generation: What are you going to do that is important in your life?

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