New Ken Burns Film Tells Story of U.S. Couple’s Rescue of Jewish Refugees


In January 1939, an ordinary American couple, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, said yes to a mission that 17 others in their Unitarian congregation in Wellesley, Massachusetts had refused. Their willingness to step up would go on to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany before and during World War II. The Sharps’ grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, has co-directed a documentary about his grandparents’ heroic past, called Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, with renowned filmmaker Ken Burns, to be aired on PBS on September 20.

Joukowsky, a filmmaker and private investor, didn’t know much about his grandparents' remarkable past until the ninth grade, when he had to interview a person of moral courage for a high school project in New York City. His mother suggested his maternal grandmother, Martha. “Little did I know my grandmother had worked in the underground, that she had evaded and defied Nazi officials, that she had this whole life with my grandfather I had never known about,” Joukowsky tells mental_floss.

When the Sharps said yes to their mission, billed as an “intervention against evil,” it was only supposed to last several months; after all, they would have to leave behind their two young children and a comfortable life in Wellesley, where Waitstill was a Unitarian minister and Martha a former social worker. Instead, their mission would continue on and off for several years—and inform their work for the rest of their lives.

While it may seem odd that a couple with no Jewish ancestry themselves would undertake such a monumental task, Joukowsky says, “Unitarians view Jews very much as their brothers and sisters, because Jesus was a Jew.” In his view, Unitarianism is like a Christian version of reform Judaism. His grandparents, he says, “were active humanists in the sense that everyone is valued and important.”

When they arrived in Prague, Czechoslovakia on February 23, 1939, the Sharps found themselves in a train station teeming with crying women and children whose only hope of rescue was that their husbands could get out of the country and send for them later. By then, Germany was urging Jews to leave the country, and more than 200,000 of the more than 500,000 Jews that had lived in Germany in 1933 had left. Many were stuck in stop-over European countries, including Czechoslovakia, still seeking a final home, while thousands of others were already being sent to concentration camps.

Joukowsky says that judging from his grandmother’s journals from the time, the couple understood the magnitude of the work ahead of them. Working with Czech Unitarians and other refugee supporters, they quickly learned techniques for deciphering cryptic memos in German; how to destroy incriminating messages that they sent to each other; how to evade Gestapo who followed and spied on them; and how to falsify and forge papers and documents necessary to get people out of the country. Martha put her own life at risk when, along with the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee, which ran its own underground, she rode a train full of Jewish women and children with falsified papers straight through the heart of Nazi Germany itself, en route to the Dutch border. They were followed, searched, questioned, and under constant scrutiny.

Had they been caught, the consequences of their actions would have been at least imprisonment and more likely execution. Yet they persisted in their efforts until August 1939, when Waitstill was denied re-entry from Geneva, and Martha got word through her underground network that she would be arrested if she stayed in Prague. A few days later, they were on a ship back to the U.S. when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war, putting their ship in danger as a potential target of German warships.

They made it back to the U.S. for a brief reunion with their children, who in their absence had been cared for by friends, but they weren’t home for long. By the spring of 1940, the president of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick Eliot—who was also a friend—contacted the Sharps. Eliot insisted they return to Europe, where the refugee crisis had only worsened.

Despite misgivings about leaving their children yet again, they returned to the continent, this time setting up camp in Lisbon, Portugal, and working to help refugees fleeing occupied France. Perhaps as penance for her own left-behind children, Martha eventually became heavily involved in helping children flee, and she stayed in Europe for several months after Waitstill returned to the U.S. The children she helped were eventually able to emigrate to the United States.

Though it is impossible to count the exact number, since many documents were destroyed, Joukowsky estimates they saved “hundreds” of refugees from their deaths, many of whom were children. Yet despite all they did, for every person they helped flee the Nazis—not all of whom were Jewish—there were thousands more they couldn’t help, which Joukowsky says caused them great anguish and guilt. “They were devastated by all the people they couldn’t help,” he says. “They were angry at the U.S. government for being so anti-Semitic.”

Even after they both returned home in 1941 and got back to the task of raising their two children—and though their marriage suffered—they continued to work with refugees and other political causes for the rest of their lives. After the war, Martha stayed active in her causes, and even mounted a failed campaign for Congress; she was defeated by Joseph W. Martin Jr., a Massachusetts Republican who became Speaker of the House the following year. She later worked for the National Security Resources Board under the Truman Administration. And she kept up the work of social justice on behalf of Jews, helping to found “Children to Palestine,” an interfaith effort to bring European Jewish refugee children to new homes in what is Israel today. She died in 1999. Waitstill continued to work as a Unitarian minister and gave his support to a number of organizations. He passed away in 1984.

On June 13, 2006, the Israeli government honored the Sharps with its special title, “Righteous Among the Nations,” given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Sharps were only the second and third U.S. citizens, after Varian Fry, to receive this title.

When Joukowsky sent a rough cut of his film to Ken Burns for potential collaboration, he knew he was taking a big risk. Burns tells mental_floss that he is “bombarded all the time” by “tubs” of DVDs and films that people hope he’ll screen, comment on, and collaborate on. He rarely has time to offer feedback.

However, Burns immediately felt a spark while watching Defying the Nazis. “It was clearly a good, complicated story, and there at its beating heart was this fundamental question that the Sharps presumed everybody would [do what they did],” he says. “I loved this existential question: Would I be able to do the kinds of things the Sharps did in service of other people they had no idea about?”

He agreed to work on the project as co-director, re-editing the film and bringing Tom Hanks on to do the voiceover narration of Waitstill.

The questions the documentary raised for Burns are the same ones that have informed Joukowsky’s entire life. When he was diagnosed at 14 with spinal muscular atrophy, his grandmother Martha would come to the hospital and say, “You’re not going to feel for sorry for yourself. Let’s get out and help other people,” he recalls. “She really taught me to go outside myself—to not focus on my own troubles or my own issues.”

Joukowsky partnered with the Facing History and Ourselves project to teach a unit on his grandparents and explore ideas of moral courage. Through his foundation, the Joukowsky Family Foundation, he created The Sharp Prize, a social justice award that “promotes humanitarian work in the example of Waitstill and Martha Sharp and seeks to empower rescuers today who are risking their lives for others.” In 2015, it gave out its first prize of $10,000 to Marina Goldman, of the Katanya Women’s Development Association, for her community work with women and children in Sierra Leone, and this year awarded $25,000 to Team Woodhouse, an organization that raised funds to send rescue workers directly to Lesvos, Greece, where they provided food, clothing, and shelter to more than 1000 Syrian refugees.

Joukowsky feels Defying the Nazis is relevant to today’s political and cultural climate. “I think the most beautiful part of this story is that it really resonates with today in a way that’s almost uncanny in terms of the isolationism of America, the confusion about race in America, the xenophobic taunting of Muslims,” he says. “I think it’s a very timely conversation.”

Burns concurs. “We see demagoguery today, we see the impulse to go [to] the basest parts of ourselves—and we also see ourselves being called by what Lincoln said were the better angels of our nature,” he says. “The Sharps were about that.”

All images: screencaps from PBS's trailer for Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War