“Righteous Among the Nations” WWII Hero Couple’s Story Told in New Film

September 23, 2016

4 min read

By: Robert Gluck

At Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, there are only five Americans listed as Righteous Among the Nations, a title awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.

The story of two of these honored heroes, American minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, is brought to life in the new Ken Burns film, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” airing Sept. 20 on PBS stations nationwide.

The Sharps’ grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, co-directed the compelling new documentary with Burns, which sheds light on how the couple saved refugees from Nazi persecution while the war raged on in Europe.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp, the subject of the new documentary, leaving for Prague in 1939. (Sharp Family Archives.)
Martha and Waitstill Sharp, the subject of the new documentary, leaving for Prague in 1939. (Sharp Family Archives.)

Joukowsky first learned of his grandparent’s story when he was given the assignment in ninth grade to write about someone with moral courage. “I came home and asked my mom who I should interview and write about. She told me to go talk to my grandmother, she did some cool things during WWII,” Joukowsky told JNS.org. “Little did I know this wonderful doting person was undercover rescuing lives, helping people escape and working with Waitstill laundering money. It changed my life.”

In 1939, the Sharps accepted a mission from the American Unitarian Association to leave their home and young children in Wellesley, Mass. and travel to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to help address the mounting refugee crisis. A total of 17 ministers were previously asked to undertake this mission, and all had declined. Sharp was the first to accept the call to volunteer in Europe. Armed with only $40,000, the couple quickly learned the art of spy craft and undertook dangerous rescue and relief missions across war-torn Europe, saving refugees, political dissidents, and Jews on the eve of World War II. After narrowly avoiding the Gestapo themselves, the Sharps returned to Europe in 1940 as representatives of the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee and continued their relief efforts in Vichy, France.

“The refugees needed documents, money and assistance and the Sharps stepped into that vacuum and helped those in danger get out,” Deborah Dwork, a Holocaust scholar, said in the film.

Current crisis

Joukowsky is hoping the inspiring movie will be life changing to many, as it parallels the current world refugee crisis.

“There are tremendous parallels, unfortunately, between the starvation and the loss of life and the dislocation of Europe after the war and the refugee crisis that came out of that war and the absolute magnitude of what’s going on today,” Joukowsky told JNS.org. “You really are just exchanging one tribe of people for another tribe of people but it’s principally women and children who suffer. The world community needs to come together.”

The filmmakers wish that the Sharps’ example of selfless sacrifice – leaving their peaceful Massachusetts home and small children – and their motivation to serve others by rescuing Jews in Nazi-held territories will inspire viewers.

They are working with many groups, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, to bring the Sharps’ story to communities around the country.

“The Sharps’ early grasp of the true nature of the Nazi threat and their willingness to leave the safety of America and take action to help endangered refugees was a rare act at a time of widespread indifference,” said Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Their courage and sacrifice should inspire us to reflect deeply on our own responsibilities in a world that also faces many challenges.”

Joukowsky hopes Jewish viewers of “Defying the Nazis” will come together and understand the positive connection between the Jewish and Christian communities. “I’m very proud of my Jewish partners on this film,” he said. “They made this film happen. Steven Spielberg gave me one of my first grants to make this film and we have many Jewish funders including Tom Tish, the Cohen family from New Hampshire and the Levine family from Boston. This is only happening because of a passionate desire by the Jewish community to tell these stories.”

The film "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War," premieres on Sept. 20. (Courtesy of Ken Burns.)
The film “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” premieres on Sept. 20. (Courtesy of Ken Burns.)

Joukowsky has always been inspired by his grandparents’ story, especially when he received life-changing news.

At 14, Joukowsky was diagnosed with Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), type III. Today, the author, filmmaker, and socially conscious venture capitalist, has spent decades researching his grandparents’ heroic rescue missions in Europe. And he’s devoted much of his life’s work to improving the experience of living with multiple disabilities while promoting community service.

In 2002, he co-founded No Limits Media with Dan Jones and Larry Rothstein, and is currently co-chair emeritus. Since its founding, the media company has been dedicated to helping empower people with disabilities. Joukowsky competed in the United States and abroad as a member of the U.S. Paralympics Team from 2002-2004. He’s also served on the board of Families of SMA, the leading foundation for research in SMA and has served as a fundraiser and an experiential agent for a cure to his disease.

Never forget

Joukowsky said, “Every generation has to learn these lessons of genocide for themselves. There’s no one history. That’s why that notion of ‘Never Again’ is so important to keep talking about it. This film is a story that brings you into the heart and soul of that conversation. This film is like a prayer because all the storytelling is narrated by the people in the film.”

Through Burns’ engaging storytelling, he takes a page from history, the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust – an idea that may be abstract to many – and personalizes it through the rich history of the film’s characters.

“It’s hard to imagine what that really means,” Joukowsky said. “But when you start to look at individual lives, you get to understand that even though the Sharps rescued 130 people, that every person has this meaning and richness in life. That wonderful statement–to save one life is to save humanity–is in the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran.”

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