It was 1939. The Nazis were ravaging Europe when a young Unitarian minister, Waitstill Sharp, answered a call at his office in Wellesley, Mass., that would change not only the life of his family but the course of history during the early dark days of World War II.
It is a tale of sacrifice and heroism that may not have been told if not for a high school paper written by Sharp’s grandson, Artemis Joukowsky.
When Joukowsky was a high school freshman, his history and social studies teacher assigned a paper on the subject of moral courage to be built around a personal interview.
His mother suggested he speak with his grandparents about their experiences in Europe during World War II. Until that point, he had known absolutely nothing about it.
In the 40 years since he turned in that paper in 1976, Joukowsky has done extensive research on the story of Waitstill Sharp and his social worker wife Martha’s courageous efforts to rescue refugees, political dissidents and Jews.
Their saga is being told in a 90-minute documentary produced by Joukowsky and Ken Burns, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.”
The story begins when the Sharps accepted a mission from the American Unitarian Association, leading to a number of dangerous assignments across Nazi-occupied territories in Czechoslovakia and France over a period of two years. The courageous couple quickly learned the art of spy craft and eluding the Gestapo as they helped to save hundreds of imperiled people fleeing Europe.
“Nearly three years before America as a nation became involved in the Second World War, these two unassuming, so-called ‘ordinary’ Americans gave up everything they knew and loved and risked their lives to become involved in a war 4,000 miles away because they knew there were people in grave danger who needed help,” Burns said in a release announcing the documentary.
When he was originally approached by his friend Joukowsky five years ago with an early, very rough cut of the film, Burns said that he fully expected that he would decide the project wasn’t for him. Yet the subject matter ended up speaking to the very type of story in which he’s most interested — a story that asks the driving question of who we are as a people.
The acclaimed documentarian, who is currently working on a 10-part Vietnam War series, became fully invested in telling the Sharps’ fascinating story, one that has many elements of a spy novel but transforms and deepens our understanding of World War II and the Holocaust.
“Beyond the cloak-and-dagger suspense of my grandparents’ experience, it is a story of what America meant to refugees fleeing war-torn countries to build new lives,” said Joukowsky. “It underscores what Waitstill would call ‘a collaborative effort’ of how a small but effective underground network of rescue workers saved as many lives as they could, and how important that lesson is for what is happening today.”
Much of “Defying the Nazis” is told firsthand through the letters and journals of the couple, with Tom Hanks voicing Waitstill’s accounts and Marina Goldman as the voice of Martha’s missives.
The documentary also features interviews with a number of people who were saved by the Sharps, mainly those who were children at the time.
Leading historians, authors and Holocaust scholars also add their perspective to the couple’s harrowing encounters with the Nazis as the Third Reich invaded Eastern Europe.
The personal toll on them is also examined, including how their marriage was severely tested by the stress of the missions and by the sadness of the two children they left behind to pursue their European relief efforts, which, if discovered would have led to their imprisonment, probable torture and death.
In recognition of their heroic sacrifices, Waitstill and Martha Sharp are two of only five Americans honored at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, and declared “Righteous Among the Nations.”
And theirs is a story that is resonant today, inspiring modern-day faith leaders to carry on the couple’s legacy by standing up to religious bigotry and indifference to refugee crises in different parts of the world.
“Their courage and sacrifice should inspire us to reflect deeply on our own responsibilities in a world that also faces many challenges,” said Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In conjunction with the PBS broadcast, that museum and a number of organizations will participate in community outreach and engagement activities with screenings and conversations that focus on what it means to be righteous, with more information available at DefyingtheNazis.org.
(“Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” airs Sept. 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS. A companion book of the same title was published by Beacon Press Sept. 6.)