In February 1939, Martha and Waitstill Sharp embarked on a daring journey to aid refugees and dissidents in Prague as the Nazis began to close in on Czechoslovakia. They left behind two children and the congregation at the Wellesley Hills, Mass., Unitarian Church, where the Rev. Waitstill Sharp served as minister.
During World War II, the Sharps saved the lives of hundreds of political dissidents, Jews, and children as their work took them across Europe. Their efforts also led to the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee, the forerunner of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
Despite their heroics, their story was somewhat obscure, both within Unitarian Universalist circles and within their own family.
The Sharps’ grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III, has spent years piecing their story back together. His efforts have led to his grandparents being named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial—two of only three Americans to receive that honor. And Joukowsky has directed and co-produced a documentary film, Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War , to bring their story to the big screen. He has created several versions of the film—along with discussion guides and curricula—to bring the story of his grandparents to a wider audience of Unitarian Universalists and to the public at large.
Joukowsky began rolling out the film in March, with screenings at the Museum of Tolerance in New York City and the Boston Public Library. The movie’s official premiere is during the weeks of April 7–22, to celebrate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. UU congregations and synagogues across the country are also scheduling screenings and discussions. Two Who Dared has won several awards, including the Special Jury Prize from the Amsterdam Film Festival and the Redemptive Storyteller Award from the Redemptive Film Festival in Virginia Beach, Va.
“I feel very gratified as a Unitarian that this story is going to be told,” said Joukowsky, a member of the UU Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn, Mass. He hopes the story of the Sharps’ legendary actions will inspire people to action. He envisions the movie helping to build communities of people who dare. “How do we have a pledge that we will take risks for others?” he asks. “Let’s use the film to take more risks to help people who are in danger.”
UUA President Peter Morales called the Sharps’ story “a powerful example of religious faith in action.” “I encourage Unitarian Universalists and anyone interested in human rights and social justice to see this compelling film,” he said.
Called to help people flee the Nazis
The story of the Sharps’ heroism began in January 1939, when they 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. Seventeen people had already turned Baker down, but the Sharps said yes. The next month, they arrived in Prague, site of the world’s largest Unitarian church, which was also a central spoke in the city’s Nazi resistance. The Sharps helped arrange exit visas and humanitarian aid as the Nazis invaded the city.
During the course of World War II, the Sharps traveled back and forth to Europe to continue their humanitarian work. They spent most of 1940 in France, helping intellectuals and Jews flee the country and aiding refugees. Martha arranged for 13 tons of powdered milk to be delivered to malnourished refugee children in France. And the couple staged a dangerous rescue of Lion Feuchtwanger, a prominent German novelist who was on the Nazis’ most-wanted list, and smuggled him into the United States.
Martha also orchestrated passage for 29 children to flee Europe on a boat bound for the United States. The film includes interviews with some of those children, now elderly. Clement Brown recalled how Martha had purchased beige berets for each of the children to wear as they travelled. Brown still has that hat from 1940. In Two Who Dared, he put on that tiny beret from his boyhood. “Only a special person would have left their own children and rescued other children,” said Brown.
The film recounts the Sharps’ story through archival photos, interviews with historians, and reminiscences of the children Martha rescued. It also includes interviews with the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president of the UUSC, and the late Rev. Jack Mendelsohn.
Several historians interviewed in the film did not know the Sharps’ story before Joukowsky began the project. “To have them now saying it is true and telling the story is remarkable for me,” said Joukowsky. “There was so much validation of the story.”
It was validating for his family as well, Joukowsky said. His mother was one of the Sharps’ two children left behind in Wellesley as his grandparents completed their humanitarian work. His family has struggled to reconcile the abandonment with the heroism. Sifting through his grandparents’ letters and archives, Joukowsky learned that his grandparents struggled with the decision, too. His research has painted a clearer picture for his mother and his uncle of their parents during the war and after their return to the United States, when Martha and Waitstill ultimately divorced.
(From the archives: Read UU World’s 2006 profile of the Sharps and news coverage of their recognition by Yad Vashem in 2005.)
Spreading the word
Joukowsky has prepared three versions of the film: the full-length, 76-minute documentary; a 55-minute broadcast version; and a 35-minute classroom film. He has partnered with the educational group Facing History and Ourselves to help tell the story in schools. The film’s website includes links to discussion materials developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Tapestry of Faith” program for children and adults.
Congregations can arrange to screen the film through the Two Who Dared website. Joukowsky said that about 80 screenings have already been scheduled in UU churches. It will also be shown at the UUA General Assembly in Louisville, Ky., in June.
Joukowsky is in the final stages of completing a companion book for the film. And he’s creating versions of the movie subtitled in different languages, including French and German.
- Righteous among the nations Israel honors two Unitarians for heroism in World War II; their story provokes soul-searching today. Michelle Bates Deakin
- Unitarian couple honored for World War II heroism
- Unitarian couple honored for World War II rescues
- Two Who Dared Official website for documentary film about Martha and Waitstill Sharp, including information on how to arrange a screening. (twowhodared.com)
- Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Human rights organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. (uusc.org)