Only one other American has received Israel's 'Righteous Among the Nations' designation.
Martha Sharp at a milk distribution center in France
What Rosemary Feigl remembers most clearly about the woman who rescued her from the Nazis is her hat. Martha Sharp wore a fancy one with a long pheasant feather. To Feigl, a 13-year-old girl with nothing but a suitcase to her name, Sharp was her elegant American savior.
Feigl, who had fled her home in Vienna with her parents in the aftermath of the devastating destruction of Kristallnacht, had a hat of her own, too. It was a beige beret. Twenty-six other children wore hats just like it as Martha Sharp lead them across war-torn Europe to Portugal, where they boarded a ship sailing to the United States in December 1940.
"Mrs. Sharp risked her safety and her life, when she didn't even know us," said 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."
Sixty-five years later, Martha Sharp and her husband, the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, are being honored by Israel as "Righteous Among the Nations" for their strength of character and heroism in their six-year mission to rescue Jews and other refugees from Nazi persecution. On December 5, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel, announced that the Sharps will be honored posthumously in June for their work helping Jews escape the Holocaust. Only one other American has been so honored.
In addition, a celebration in their honor will be held this evening, December 12, at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, the church where Waitstill Sharp was minister before beginning the daring mission to Europe. Feigl, along with the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, will be among those paying tribute. Also speaking will be Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA and former president of the UUA.
For six years, the Sharps stayed a step ahead of the Gestapo in Czechoslovakia, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain as they assisted Jews, journalists, political leaders, and children in finding safety in England and the United States.
The Sharps' legacy continues in the human rights organization they helped to found: The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Along with three others, the Sharps helped to establish the Unitarian Service Committee, setting up its first office in neutral Portugal in 1940. From Lisbon, the Sharps—along with the American Unitarian Association's Robert Dexter, his wife Elisabeth, and the Rev. Dr. Charles Joy, a Unitarian minister, and in collaboration with other organizations—helped as many as 3,000 people escape Europe. They focused on freeing political refugees who had spoken out against Nazism in Germany or Fascism in Spain.
In 1941, the Service Committee introduced the symbol of the flaming chalice, which it used as a seal in authenticating travel documents and as its logo. The flaming chalice was later embraced by Unitarian Universalists as the symbol of their religion. The UUSC continues today as an independent human rights organization and an associate member of the UUA.
Just 13 when she set sail from Portugal, Rosemary Feigl was not a political refugee. She was a Jewish child with her parents, seeking refuge in Italy, then Vichy France. Feigl recalls her father coming across a network of Unitarians who were providing affidavits for asylum. And he heard about Martha Sharp, who was arranging to transport children to safety.
Feigl said goodbye to her parents in Marseilles. "I was so frightened of being alone. I had no money. I was going to a strange country and didn't speak a work of English," she recalled in a telephone interview. Some of the other children were Americans being spirited back home. But most were Czech and Viennese. "They weren't all Jewish. They were just children whose parents felt the need to get them out of this terrible dilemma they were in," said Feigl.
One year and three months after Feigl arrived in the United States, her parents followed.
The story of Feigl's rescue and the Sharps' heroism had been buried for decades. The UUSC founders wrote no memoirs. And until now, their courage has largely gone uncelebrated. The Sharps' grandsons, Artemis Joukowsky III and his brother Michael Joukowsky, set out to build a historical record of the heroic exploits they had heard from their grandparents when they were children. Sorting through archives in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and London, they pieced their tale together and presented it to Yad Vashem.
Martha Sharp will be the first American woman to receive the Righteous Among Nations designation. Together, Waitstill and Martha are only the second and third U.S. citizens to receive the distinction.
After the war, the Sharps' lives got less dangerous but continued to focus on international relief efforts. Martha continued to work for the USC and in 1943 helped found Children to Palestine, an interfaith effort to bring European Jewish refugee children to new homes in what was then Palestine. She ran an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946, worked in the Truman White House with the National Security Resources Board, and started a New York public relations business.
Waitstill briefly returned to his ministry at Wellesley Hills before accepting a position in Cairo with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. The Sharps had two children, divorced, and both remarried. Waitstill died in 1984. Martha died in 1999.
"We at UUSC are deeply gratified that the Sharps' heroic efforts—risking their lives to help others—are being recognized by the international community," said Charlie Clements, UUSC president. "Over the past 65 years, the legacy of the Sharps and their work during the Holocaust has informed our work and inspired us to challenge modern forms of oppression. I was reminded again of this last month when I traveled to Chad to hear the stories of refugees fleeing the genocide now taking place in Darfur. The honor bestowed on the Sharps reinforces our commitment to challenge the inhumanity of this era."
The Sharps' cloak-and-dagger heroics may be honored in another way in the future. Hollywood has expressed an interest in their story. Last week, Clements and Artemis Joukowsky met with movie producers interested in telling their tale on the silver screen. Joukowsky is also at work on documentary film chronicling his grandparents' tale.
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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).
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