With the appointment of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933 came the rise of the Third Reich and the beginning of one of the darkest periods in Europe’s history. That same year, the first concentration camps were built, beginning over a decade of mass murder of Jews, homosexuals, communists, socialists, gypsies, Poles, Slavs, the mentally and physically disabled, and prisoners of war, among others. More than eleven million people were victims of the Holocaust, and research suggests that number could be even higher.
Years of death and devastation reached their boiling point in 1939, commencing World War II. The United States, however, would not enter the war until 1941. In fact, most Americans were quite oblivious to the current events of Europe during the 1930s. However, for some like Waitstill and Martha Sharp, the seriousness of the situation was obvious and required immediate action.
Defying the Nazis: the Sharps’ War tells an incredible story of the sacrifice and heroism of Waitstill and Martha Sharp. The young New England couple were active members of their local community and the Unitarian Church. They had two small children and lead a peaceful American life. Waitstill, a Unitarian minister, and Martha, a social worker, were naturally caring and compassionate people, dedicated to serving the community.
Yet the Sharps were nothing short of extraordinary people. They sacrificed their lives, parenthood, health, and safety to protect refugees from torture and death in Europe. Working clandestinely to extract refugees from Nazi-ruled countries, the Sharps spent months away from their home and children and often each other, discreetly sneaking out prominent politicians, writers, musicians, and artists whose lives were threatened by the Reich.
Perhaps more extraordinary than the Sharps’ courage was their reasoning for rescuing refugees. Most stories about missionaries highlight religion as the driving force of humanitarian actions. Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is unique in reaffirming that for the Sharps as Unitarians, reason and the ideals of freedom drove them to fight to protect these refugees. Reverend Jack Mendelsohn explains that the “core belief of movements like the Unitarian and Universalist movements [is] the belief in freedom, freedom of thought, and the use of reason and tolerance of difference.” These core beliefs were felt so strongly by the Sharps that they were compelled to “wage war” on the Nazis.
This inspiring and heartbreaking documentary was the brainchild of Artemis Joukowsky, grandson of the Sharps; and codirected by none other than famous historian Ken Burns. While Burns tends to take the wheel on his historical projects, for this documentary, he took a backseat. Once Burns caught wind of this project, he simply could not stay away. He told TIME, “This is a story of sacrifice and its cost, and therefore it raises existential questions. This is a flabbergasting story, a middle-class Unitarian minister and his wife, in the comfort of Wellesley, Massachusetts, leave their children with the congregation and go to Europe on the eve of the war and get Jews and other refugees out. It’s a phenomenal transformation.”
Burns was right. The Sharps continued their rescue efforts throughout the remainder of the war. Martha, in particular, felt a strong obligation to carry out her mission to protect the “undesirables,” specifically children. Martha even wrote a letter to her son explaining that she could not be home with him, her own child, because she had to stay and protect so many other little children in danger. Over the course of their career, Martha and Waitstill saved the lives of hundreds of men, women, and children from the Nazis. They received no compensation for their time or work, no protection, and they endured the burdens that their missions placed on their family and their marriage, which unfortunately would not last. Although brief, this documentary is informative, well-researched, and heart-wrenchingly emotional. Tracking down some of the survivors who were saved by the Sharps, Defying the Nazis not only communicates information, but also builds a relationship between the viewer and the Sharps.
For the history lovers, suspense lovers, Ken Burns lovers, Unitarians, and humanitarians out there, I’d highly recommend this ninety-minute documentary on perhaps some on the most heroic and ordinary Americans of the twentieth century. The film can be found at PBS.org and is available for purchase.