The Unitarians and the Nazis:
A Confrontation to be Remembered

By Daphne Drohobyczer and Berta Hyken

In 2016 Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowski released a documentary entitled “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” describing the efforts of Waitstill and Martha Sharp to free refugees of the Holocaust in Europe. Both hailed from Wellesley, Massachusetts, Martha and Waitstill, were married. They worked tirelessly for two years to save Jews during World War II all over Europe. They placed their own children in the hands of their Parish as they charged forward to Nazi occupied Europe. Their perilous adventure led to the liberation of countless Jews. Tom Hanks plays the voice of Waitstill Sharp in the film.

In 1939, the Sharps’ courageous journey, that involved risking their own lives, freed hundreds of Jews. They were determined to save hundreds of innocent victims and they saw this as a duty to humanity. They took on this mission as an act of good will and to make up for the downfall of human nature. They felt obliged to fight Hitler and free the innocent Jews who were unable to fend for themselves.

A social worker by training, Martha, accompanied Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian Minister began their quest to help refugees escape the war. They were literally defying the Nazis and this was their War that they fought passionately. Hence the documentary being called “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War. Endangered asylum seekers were led through to the United States and London on Sharps’ watch. From Wellesley, Massachusetts to Budapest, Hungary, the Sharps made it their mission to save as many people as possible.

Many questions arise when morally viewing “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” because who knows what the alternatives were for the Jews? The questions are not easy, and do not have easy answers. One may find this shocking because the questions are endless. The documentary was engaging, holding the audience’s attention throughout. The role played by Unitarians at this time was vital to the survival of Jews during this period.

The Sharps made grueling decision, yet they persevered their beliefs and principles. Atrocities were committed on European lands, and the Sharps’ did what they could save many Jewish lives. Comparatively, Schindler’s List also detailed the life of one man who took it upon himself to save Jews, one by one. The black and white film by Steven Spielberg was a blockbuster.

“Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” was co-created by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, grandson of the Sharps. Burns had already made a big name for himself in the documentary field. Burns and Joukowski collaborated in producing this outstanding documentary.

At the beginning of the documentary, the Sharps were just a happy couple in Wellesley, Massachusetts and they felt the tides turning against the Jews across the Atlantic Ocean. Horrific tales of the War reached the United States and it took someone as brave as them to combat Nazism.

As a Harvard Law School graduate, Waitstill was very aware of Hitler’s rise to power in 1939. He had already become a minister by 1933. Martha was rebellious and went to college, followed by social work school, even though she could have just started working.

Several years later, a friend in their Unitarian Community posed an idea to Waitstill: that he join him in his a mission to Europe to save people from the wrath of Hitler. Unitarians esteemed such character values as freedom and tolerance. The Sharps’ spent time away from each other. This was a strain on the Sharps’ marriage because Martha did not want to leave their children behind.

The documentary is captured through the lens of survivors, the Sharps’ children, and letters between Martha and Waitstill. Tom Hanks captured the voice of white man’s burden in his portrayal of Waitstill Sharp; Marina Goldman played the voice of Martha Sharp. Together the couple traveled to Prague on the Orient Express on none other than the night that Hitler invaded that city. The Sharps’ had a well-oiled method of saving Jews from being exterminated. The Sharps’ even had their own office. Some Jews were fleeing, others were refugees who were facing the Gestapo, some Quakers smuggled Jews, saving one by one through the underground. Martha wrote that the Jews were “optimistic” but simultaneously horrified knowing that they could face torture and death.

The Sharps promulgated yet another challenge that brought them back to Europe. Their missions took them back to the recently occupied France where there were more starving refugees. There were smugglers helping refugees to escape, and yet everyone knew that this was the heart of darkness.

It was the Sharps’ grandson, Artemis Joukowski, who shot all of the interviews for the Ken Burn’s film. Furthermore, he wrote a book on the subject. Some say this film was worthy of an Oscar. The accuracy and presence of primary sources denoted a fully accurate account of the Sharps’ family. They left a strong legacy behind spreading tolerance and acceptance for Jews thanks to the practices of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

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