On Feb. 4, 1939, nearly a year after German troops marched into Czechoslovakia, an American couple left their picturesque Massachusetts home on a clandestine and dangerous journey to Prague.
“Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” a documentary about a heroic couple, premiered on PBS on Sept. 20.
Waitstill Sharp, a youthful bespectacled Unitarian minister, and his attractive wife, Martha, left behind their two little children to travel to a city under attack with the mission of assisting political nonconformists and Jews to escape the Nazis by any way possible.
He realized it was illegal, but he did it because there was no other choice, wrote Waitstill Sharp, describing how he made it in and out of Czechoslovakia over a half-dozen times so money could be laundered on the black market to have funds for dozens of Czechs trying to escape Europe. He owed no ethics to anyone. “No one was owed honesty if I could rescue human lives,” he said.
The Sharps’ underground work on for the Unitarian Church is related for the first time in “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” a documentary directed by their grandson Artemis Joukowsky and Ken Burns, an Emmy Award winner. Using family photos, interviews with some of the refugees they rescued, even sermons (read by Tom Hanks), the filmmakers put together the story of two of the most incredible heroes of the Second World War.
The Sharps are among only five American non-Jews honoured by the Israeli Holocaust Memorial for rescuing Jews. They were motivated from the start to go into the kingdom of hell, notes a historian of the Holocaust in the documentary.
Indeed, the nondescript New England pastor and his wife were both fervent about social justice. Seventeen Unitarian ministers refused the assignment that the Sharps quickly accepted as their duty.
“What insanity has brought us here,” noted Martha Sharp as she observed German troops march into Prague on March 15, 1939, as Hitler finished the invasion of Czechoslovakia He imposed a curfew on the city, ordering his troops to kill anyone who didn’t obey. Using darkness as a cover, Martha and Waitstill used the hotel furnace to destroy incriminating documents on dissidents and Jews who had come to them for assistance.
From this night on, nobody could be seen as trustworthy, wrote Martha, whose diary entries describe watching a Jewish man being roughed up by Nazis on the street, and being tailed by Gestapo agents as she hurried to meet a mysterious “Mr. X” whom she aided in escaping from Prague.
The Sharps risked death and arrest when they opened their small resettlement office in the city. They established soup kitchens for anxious refugees, went with people out of occupied countries to comparative safety in England, the US and Holland. They worked in partnership with other American church organizations, including members of the Quaker Underground.
Before their incursion into Czechoslovakia, the Sharps took training at the Unitarian Church office in London. They were taught how to destroy documents, how to avoid being tailed and how to communicate using coded messages. Eventually, they were discovered by German spies.
The Gestapo read their mail and checked their hotel room three times. In August 1939, Martha arrived at their office to discover the doors locked and all their furniture on the street. She quickly learned that the Nazis were planning to arrest her and her husband. Waitstill, on a mission to Geneva, he had his Czech visa removed from his passport by Nazi border guards. The couple escaped to London and sailed back home.
Although they joyfully reunited with their two children, Hastings and Martha Jr., they discovered that America was oddly detached from the war overseas. Returning to a normal life proved near impossible for the brave couple, who packed their suitcases again when church leaders sent them off on another mission.
That was an extraordinarily selfless act, said Burns, who made the film. They were centred on what they accomplish in the moment as individuals. They sacrificed their relationship with family and each other. They felt the world could be saved if one life was protected, New York Post reported.
So they returned to a continent ravaged by war. On their second trip behind enemy lines, Martha focused her labours on a “kindertransport,” marshalling dozens of Jewish children in southern France whose frantic parents sent them alone to New York to flee from the concentration camps. Her immigration program was such a success it was employed as a standard for other programs during the war in Europe.
At the conclusion of their second mission, the Sharps’ marriage was on rocky ground. In 1946, Marsha returned to Europe shortly after the war to help with relief work, and in time divorced Waitstill.
Whenever someone praised her for her heroic efforts in saving many of refugees, she simply shrugged: Anyone would have done it, she said.