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Two Who Defined “Defying Hate”: Martha and Waitstill Sharp

September 19, 2016

They left their children behind in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to rescue people they had never met in Europe as World War II began. Risking arrest and worse at the hands of the Nazis, they operated in secret to help Jews, dissidents, and children escape from Czechoslovakia before the war – she managed the details in Prague while he traveled the continent raising money to fund their efforts. And then, with war declared and the Germans closing in they escaped on the Queen Mary to New York, through seas patrolled by U-Boats intent on sinking the pride of England’s commercial fleet. They returned to their congregation, and their children in Wellesley, safe at home after saving hundreds of people.

And then they went back.

On Tuesday, September 20, PBS will air Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, a documentary directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky III, the Sharps’ grandson. Based on the letters Waitstill and Martha wrote to each other through both parts of their dangerous two-year mission, it tells the story of these two UUSC founders in riveting personal detail. They invented codes for the records they kept to avoid being discovered when their homes were raided and searched. They created false travel documents for some of the people they rescued to help them get past border guards. They kept moving west as the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled through Poland, Belgium, and France

And perhaps most difficult of all, they arranged for parents to send their children away from home and into the hands of strangers in order to keep them safe, knowing that for many of these families, it would be the last time they ever saw each other.

It was difficult, heartbreaking work that could easily have cost the Sharps their own lives. As director Ken Burns says, “they did things that weren’t taught in divinity school.”

Martha and Waitstill Sharp sacrificed much to defy the hate spreading over Europe in those terrible two years. Like many of the people they helped, they trusted others to care for their own children while they risked everything to fulfill their mission. In the end, they couldn’t save everyone, but they did everything possible to rescue many people from Nazi concentration camps.

“Times were so desperate, people were thankful if
they could get their children onto the transports. I do remember at the airport, my mother was walking and down with my sister, arm in arm, pensively. And then we had our last meal, and my father took photographs. They thought one of us might escape and come to England. My mother and the rest of my family didn’t survive.” – Gerda Mayer, who fled Prague on March 14, 1939

Their story is an inspiring reminder that for those of us who remember the holocaust and commit to “never again,” there are always people before us who said, “not now.”

Watch the PBS premiere of Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War on Tuesday, September 20, 2016 at 9:00 p.m. (ET) and learn about UUSC’s work surrounding the premiere here.

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