Martha and Waitstill Sharp posthumously recognized as 'Righteous Among the Nations'; only one other American so honored.
William G. Sinkford and Charlie Clements
Two American Unitarians were immortalized this week in Jerusalem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations for their efforts to save Jews during World War II. Martha and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, two founders of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, were honored in a June 13 ceremony in Israel as Righteous Among the Nations and their names were carved into the garden’s Wall of Remembrance.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel recognized the couple posthumously for their work to save Jews, dissidents, and children. Martha Sharp is the first American woman to receive this distinction, which recognizes non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. They are just the second and third Americans to have their names memorialized in the Garden of the Righteous. (The American writer Varian Fry became the first in 1996.)
Representatives of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the UU Service Committee joined members of the Sharp family at the ceremony in Israel on Tuesday.
The Rev. Waitstill Sharp was minister of the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Society in Massachusetts. His wife, Martha Sharp, was a social worker. When representatives from the American Unitarian Association asked them if they would travel to Czechoslovakia in 1939 to assist refugees, they said yes, leaving their two young children and the ministry of the church in the hands of parishioners. Over the course of several years across war-torn Europe, Martha and Waitstill Sharp helped almost 2,000 people—including intellectuals, political leaders, writers, artists and children—flee to safety.
In one daring rescue in France, they freed Lion Feuchtwanger, a renowned German-Jewish author and dissident, and arranged safe passage for him to sail to New York.
At least one of the children they rescued is still alive today. Rosemarie Feigl, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was 14 when Martha Sharp orchestrated her escape from Europe in 1940 on a boat with 29 other children. Now 80, Feigl spoke at the Yad Vashem ceremony. "My name is Rosemarie Eva Feigl," the Boston Globe reported her saying. "Martha Sharp saved my life."
Waitstill Sharp died in 1984; Martha Sharp, in 1999. Their daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, accepted a certificate and medal on her parents' behalf, and she spoke at the Yad Vashem ceremony. "It is good that this memorial we stand in today does not use the term heroes," she said. "My mother, trained as a social worker in Hull House in Chicago, and my father, a Sunday school teacher inspired to become a minister and lawyer, would be embarrassed by those labels. They were modest and ordinary people who responded to the suffering and needs around them. . . They never viewed what they did as extraordinary."
Holding up the Yad Vashem medal, Martha Sharp Joukowsky said, "This medal not only reflects their determination and courage. It is about unseen efforts of a much wider circle of people who made their work possible."
Martha Sharp Joukowsky also acknowledged her sons, Artemis Joukowsky III and Misha Joukowsky, who have spent years reconstructing the Sharps' efforts to present their case to Yad Vashem. "It was very emotionally gratifying to see my grandparents' names on the Wall of Remembrance," said Artemis Joukowsky after the ceremony. "It feels like the culmination of everything we worked for since we began this process over 10 years ago. For my family it has been completely transforming to have experienced this."
The Joukowsky brothers were assisted in presenting the story of their grandparents to Yad Vashem by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR), a New York non-profit organization that recognizes, honors, and supports people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Stanlee J. Stahl, executive vice president of JFR, praised the Sharps and their denomination. "They went because their church asked them to," she said. "Here, you have a wonderful example of a denomination which said we are not going to sit idly by and let the Jews and other political dissidents who are being oppressed by the Third Reich perish."
Charlie Clements, president and chief executive officer of the UUSC, also highlighted the Unitarian denomination's support: "Yad Vashem recognized that the work of the Sharps was the impulse of a religious denomination that was concerned about people at risk," he said, in a telephone interview following the ceremony.
Mordecai Paldiel, director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, reflected on the significance of the Sharps being just the second and third Americans to receive this distinction. "They left the peaceful environment and the serenity of the United States to go to a continent torn by war and strife to get people out," said Paldiel. "The Sharps didn't know what they would be up against. They had to use very unorthodox methods and place themselves at considerable risk."
Also at the ceremony was Richard H. Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Israel; Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate; and the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
Sinkford said he felt a mix of emotions at the ceremony. "The first emotion—and it's a tricky emotional response for a religious person—was one of pride," he said in a phone interview. "I was so glad that our faith community responded to the impulse to help and so thankful that the Sharps were willing to put their lives at risk to do that."
"The other overwhelming response was that the tragedy that was the Holocaust could have been prevented," he added. "And that we, in our time, are called to cut short another holocaust, which is happening in Darfur, Sudan."
The UUA and UUSC are active in efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur, which has killed approximately 400,000 people since 2003.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).