The Couple Who Fought Genocide
Thursday, September 14, 2006
As the Nazis marched across Europe in 1939 and 1940, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts and his wife rushed into the coming Holocaust to save Jews and other refugees, including dozens of children.
For their heroism, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will dedicate plaques today in memory of Waitstill and Martha Sharp. They are only the second and third U.S. citizens named to an honor roll of 21,000 "righteous" gentiles, non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews.
But the moral example of the Sharps is arguably much greater, and certainly more complex, than those bare facts suggest. When they made two lengthy trips to Europe to save the children of strangers, they left their own children with relatives and parishioners. Their 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son were separated, and the daughter nearly died of pneumonia in her parents' absence.
Decades later, the Sharps' children and grandchildren are still working out the emotional consequences -- and thinking over the ethical questions -- created by the couple's wartime activity.
"The moral dilemma they pose for each of us is not just 'Am I willing to risk my own skin to save someone else's life?' It is 'Am I willing to impose risk and sacrifice on my children to save other people's lives?' " said their grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III of Boston.
Waitstill Sharp died in 1984. Martha Sharp Cogan, who had divorced and remarried, died in 1999.
Joukowsky, 45, is proud of them. He has done more than anyone to win them recognition by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem that maintains the list of righteous gentiles. He is making a documentary film and writing a book in hopes that their story will inspire Americans to act boldly when genocides occur in such places as Darfur, Sudan.
Yet he said he could never do to his children what his grandparents did to his mother and uncle.
"I have to say, they crossed a certain line. One of them leaving was fine. But the fact that they both left, especially the second time, when they knew what they were getting into. . . . It was heroic, but it crossed a line."
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Marianne Sheckler-Feder of Laguna Hills, Calif., is not so sure.
She has a fuzzy but enduring memory of Martha Sharp, reinforced by a fading black-and-white photograph taken on a sun-dappled street in the French port of Marseilles.