Few know the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two Unitarian Universalists who left a comfortable life in America to join their church’s dangerous efforts in Europe to rescue thousands of Jews and refugees from persecution during WWII. Theirs is an interfaith story, a piece of seldom learned WWII history, and an iconic story of the core Unitarian Universalist values. Made into a movie in 2012, the Two Who Dared – The Sharp’s War, details the couple’s life-threatening missions and moral courage, revealing a timeless lesson of human sacrifice and courage to be shared with future generations.
The community is invited to attend a free movie screening and discussion on Sunday, April 7 at 7 p.m. in the Tukey Auditorium, located on the ground floor of the Library at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg. The screening is co-sponsored by Temple B’nai Israel and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg.
In January of 1939, Waitstill and Martha Sharp were living with their two small children in the prosperous Boston suburb of Wellesley, Mass. where their busy lives were defined by the demands of family, church, and community. One Sunday evening, the Sharps received a phone call that would change their lives. Unitarian Church leader Everett Baker asked the Sharps to undertake a dangerous new project in Czechoslovakia, where there was a large Unitarian community, to lead an emergency relief mission. This work included providing food, shelter, and support to refugees, and ultimately helping hundreds to flee the country. Baker had approached 17 other couples prior to the Sharps, and all had refused this assignment. The Sharps accepted.
Once they had made the difficult decision to leave behind their home, their careers, and their children, the Sharps spent 14 months in war-torn Europe, first in Czechoslovakia and then, after a brief return to the United States, in Vichy France. The Sharps helped many to leave Europe. In Prague, Czechoslovakia, what began as an operation to distribute food and medical care to refugees soon turned into a rescue mission. They interviewed hundreds of refugees who crowded outside their offices, collecting information and making contacts that allowed some to emigrate legally to Great Britain and the United States.
In Prague, Waitstill arranged a money-laundering scheme that allowed refugees to bring some savings with them when they fled—something that was illegal under the Nazi regime. In Czechoslovakia, and later in France, the couple accompanied escaping refugees through dangerous border crossings, even helping to smuggle hunted Jewish cultural figures to safety on secret mountain paths through the Pyrenees.
Jewish children were the most vulnerable of all. The French government was cooperating with Nazi policies by sending Jews to grim French-run internment camps, where they remained until they were sent to Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Ultimately Martha was able to rescue of 27 children from France, six of whom were Jewish and the others children of political dissidents whose parents feared for their safety. The youngest of the children was only three, the oldest 16. Together with Martha and chaperones they navigated border crossings, customs searches, and miles of bureaucratic red tape as they made their way from Marseilles to Lisbon and then onto the ocean liner that brought them to Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 23, 1940.
The Sharps were named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. They are two of only three Americans to be so honored. They have also been recognized by the U.S. Congress, the Red Cross, the French, Czech and Portuguese governments, ADL, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and numerous other social justice organizations.
For more information about the screening, please contact Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz at EZRabbi@aol.com, (864) 582-2001 at Temple B’nai Israel; or Rev. Michell Buhite at (864) 585-9230 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg. More details about the movie are available online at www.twowhodared.com.