During the 1980s, I served as a part-time instructor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College, in New London. Every other spring semester, I had the privilege of teaching a course on the Holocaust, which consistently drew many more students than the limit of 40 I had established. I continue to be gratified that so many young men and women – the majority of them not Jewish – chose to explore this dark and even frightening subject.
On the last day of class, I asked my students to write a sentence or two expressing what they felt they had learned from their studies. One of my students, a serious and sensitive young woman, wrote that the horrors of the Holocaust rendered the notion of love “ridiculous.” What sticks with me almost 30 years after my student wrote those words is her emphatic linking of the noun “love” with the modifying adjective “ridiculous.”
This young woman was by no means a cynical person; quite the contrary, she was exceptionally caring and compassionate, accepting without complaint the special responsibilities that fell upon her as the eldest child in a large family whose mother had died young. Despite her emotional maturity, she found it almost impossible – at least for a time – to affirm the possibility of enduring love in a world in which the Nazis came close to obliterating whatever goodness lay in the beating heart of humankind.
I would hope that the acts of sacrificial kindness portrayed in such films as “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” a recent documentary written and directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, might demonstrate to my former student that even the Holocaust, in all of its unspeakable horror, does not and cannot render love “ridiculous.” Readers of the article “New Ken Burns film spotlights little-known Holocaust rescuers,” in the Sept. 2 issue of The Jewish Voice, might recall that this documentary “takes a highly personal look at the American Christian couple who left a quiet life in New England, traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe and smuggled hundreds of Jews to safety.”
This couple, grandparents of co-writer and co-director Artemis Joukowsky, were Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and his wife, Martha. In early February 1939, they left their two young children, Hastings and Martha Content, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, as they set out for a Europe on the brink of war.
Because I’ve seen the film online and have been given a copy of the script, I have been able to study “Defying the Nazis” line by line.
Much of the text is taken from the letters and written recollections of Waitstill and Martha. Early in the documentary, we learn that on March 15, 1939, less than three weeks after the Sharps arrived in Prague, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Martha, voiced by Marina Goldman in the documentary, offers this report: “The night the Nazis invaded we found the furnace at the hotel Atlantic and began to destroy the documents we’d kept on our work. Even at four a.m. there was a queue of people all waiting their turn to approach the furnace. It was a silent line. From this night on, nobody could be trusted.”
The story quickly develops a cloak-and-dagger urgency. The Sharps continually defy the Nazis with their courage and their cunning – shepherding hundreds of Jewish children from the claws of their Nazi tormentors, rescuing prominent Jewish intellectuals marked for death. Waitstill, voiced by Tom Hanks, explains why he is engaged in the illegal exchange of worthless local currency for U.S. dollars: “I knew it was illegal but I did it because I had no other choice. I was beyond the pale of civilization. I owed no ethics to anybody. I owed no honesty to anybody at all if I could save imperiled human lives.”
The Sharps returned from Czechoslovakia in August 1939, but returned to Nazi-occupied Europe in June 1940, establishing their new base at the Hotel Metropole, in Lisbon, Portugal. During this second stay, Waitstill participated in an especially daring and dangerous operation; with the assistance of others in the resistance movements, he managed to bring a number of threatened Jewish intellectuals, including the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, from occupied France over the mountains to Spain and finally across the Atlantic to freedom in the United States.
In recognition of the Sharps’ extraordinary efforts to save Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis, the State of Israel has recognized Waitstill Sharp and Martha Sharp as Chasidei Umot Ha’olam, the Righteous among the Nations, among Israel’s most prestigious honors. Their names are now engraved at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial. They are among only five Americans out of a total of 25,000 so recognized.
At a 2006 ceremony honoring her deceased parents, Martha Content Sharp spoke these words of praise: “They were modest and ordinary people. They responded to the suffering and needs around them as they would have expected everyone to do in a similar situation. They never viewed what they did as extraordinary.”
“Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” premiered on Sept. 20 on several PBS stations, including Boston’s WGBH, Channel 2. The film appeared on Rhode Island’s PBS station, Channel 36, on Sept. 27. For those of you who missed those showings, be sure to see the documentary when it returns to PBS as an encore. The selfless actions of Waitstill and Martha Sharp in their war against the Nazis signal to our weary world that determined and dedicated private citizens can shine the light of love into even the darkest of nights; their deeds testify to the enduring goodness that beats in the human heart.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.