Martha and Waitstill Sharp wave goodbye as they embark for Europe to carry out the rescue and relief operation during WWII.

Responding to fascism in Europe

Both Unitarians and Universalists watched with apprehension the rise of Hitler and fascism in post–World War I Europe. At the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in May 1933, the year Hitler took power, the convention passed a resolution stating that Unitarians "greatly deplore the persecution of the Jews in Germany as a violation of equity, tolerance, and humanity."

Two years later, the Universalist General Convention adopted a resolution expressing sympathy for the persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany and noting their "abhorrence of religious and economic persecution." These concerns were not generally shared in the then-isolationist United States, where anti-Semitism was widespread.

In October 1938, following the approval of the Munich Treaty by Germany, France, England, and Italy, Hitler annexed the portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. The Unitarian leadership was stunned by the betrayal of a model democratic state whose first lady, Charlotte Masaryk, was a Unitarian from New York. Moreover, the denomination had close ties to Czech Unitarians and to members of the liberal National Czechoslovak Church.

The desire to "do something" was strong and in December, the board of directors of the AUA approved the plan of Dr. Robert Dexter, director of the AUA's Department of Social Relations, for a "service mission to Czechoslovakia."

In February, Martha and Waitstill Sharp sailed for Europe as representatives of the AUA "to see what could be done." Waitstill was minister of the Wellesley Hills, Mass., Unitarian Church and Martha had a degree in social work. They arrived in Prague on February 23 hoping to help some of the 250,000 refugees who had poured into that city from the Sudetenland and elsewhere. Within three weeks, they stood in the streets of Prague with thousands of others watching the Nazi troops march in to take over the whole country.

For five more months, the Sharps carried out a rescue and relief operation. They tried to match endangered people with job opportunities outside the country so that they would be eligible for exit visas, and they gave funds to the Czech Unitarian Church and to various relief organizations. Their rescue list included intellectuals, students, and anti-Nazi political leaders. The Sharps left Europe on August 30. Before they reached New York, Germany had invaded Poland and World War II was under way.

Unitarian Service Committee

The Unitarian Service Committee (USC) was established in May 1940 as a standing committee of the AUA. It would be a "committee to investigate opportunities both in America and abroad . . . for humanitarian service as may in its judgment seem desirable and wise."

By mid-June, the Sharps were on their way back to Europe to conduct another rescue and relief mission. Basing their operations in Lisbon and Marseilles, they brought a shipment of milk to children in the Pau region of southern France and facilitated the emigration of refugees, including that of writers Franz Werfel and Lion Feuchtwanger and their wives. In collaboration with the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, Martha arranged for the passage of 29 children and 10 adults to the United States.

In April 1941, USC adopted as its seal a flaming chalice symbol designed by painter and musician Hans Deutsch, a refugee who worked in the Lisbon office for about six months before emigrating to the United States. This was the first use of the flaming chalice symbol by the denomination.

The numbers of people rescued by the USC, usually in collaboration with other agencies, has been impossible to calculate with certainty. It is probable that the number is above 1,000 and possibly as high as 3,000.

Universalist Service Committee

Just as the Unitarians had ties to Czech churches, so, too, the Universalists had ties to Dutch churches and felt compelled to act. In 1940 the Universalist Board of Trustees appointed an emergency War Relief Committee to channel financial support for relief activities.

By mid-1945, the Universalist Service Committee was formed officially. Within months, it had contacted the USC, its Boston neighbor, to propose a joint Unitarian Universalist post-war European relief project in Holland. Later, the two committees ran a shelter for adolescent girls and boys in Verden, Germany. These were the earliest occasions of close cooperation between the two organizations that merged in 1963 to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC).

Throughout its history, UUSC has advanced human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies. The legacy of Martha and Waitstill Sharp has informed and inspired UUSC to respond to humanitarian crises, challenging modern forms of genocide and other violations of human rights.

Written by Ghanda DiFiglia, author of Roots and Visions: The First Fifty Years of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Mary-Ella Holst, a longtime UUSC supporter and former board member, contributed to this report.

Check out highlights of UUSC history throughout the years.