The Couple Who Fought Genocide
Amid Nazis, the Sharps Took 'Righteous' Action

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

* * *

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.

"I remember a figure, she was a very, very elegant lady. Kind of serious and very concerned. You looked up to her, she demanded respect," said Sheckler-Feder, 79.

Thousands of refugees from across Europe had flocked to Marseilles in hopes of gaining passage abroad, only to be interned in work camps when France surrendered to Germany in 1940 and the Nazis set up a collaborationist government in Vichy.

Sheckler-Feder was 12. She was one of three Jewish sisters, nearly identical triplets who had fled with their parents from Vienna, a bare step ahead of the Nazis.

Marseilles was the end of the road, the end of hope -- until they met Martha Sharp. She pestered Vichy officials to issue exit visas for 29 children, including nine Jews. With almost as much difficulty, she persuaded the State Department, which was rife with anti-Semitism, to let the children and 10 adults into the United States.

Sheckler-Feder and her sisters traveled by train to Lisbon and sailed in December 1940 aboard the Excambion, a ship stripped of all furnishings except sleeping bags, blankets and pillows to accommodate as many passengers as possible. Their parents eventually followed.

Sheckler-Feder has no doubt that were it not for Martha Sharp, her family would have perished: "What she did is outstanding, it will never be forgotten."

"Can I imagine leaving my children behind to save others? Yes -- if I know they're in good hands," she said.

* * *

Martha Sharp Joukowsky, who was 2 when her parents first departed for Europe, has a fuzzy but enduring memory of Marion Niles. It, too, is sun-dappled.

Niles was a member of Waitstill Sharp's Unitarian congregation in Wellesley Hills, Mass., one of several parishioners who took little Martha in for nearly eight months during her parents' first trip. The wealthy, matronly Niles loved to garden, and that is one of Sharp Joukowsky's earliest memories: not her parents, but "Aunt" Marion's garden.

Her strongest childhood memory, however, is of a sick doll, said Sharp-Joukowsky, 70, a retired professor of archaeology at Brown University who now divides her time between Providence, R.I., and excavations in Petra, Jordan.

When an infection led to pneumonia during her parents' second long trip to Europe, which lasted much of 1940, Aunt Marion said her doll was very sick and needed to go into the hospital.

"They clamped a balloon filled with ether over my mouth, and I remember struggling against that balloon," Sharp Joukowsky said. "My doll was next to me, and I remember thinking, 'Why are they doing this to me and not to my doll?' "

Sharp Joukowsky credits Marion Niles and a local Unitarian doctor with saving her life. Her parents were not around for the illness or the long convalescence, much of it in Aunt Marion's garden.

"Did I resent my parents for leaving? I don't know, I don't think so," she said. "I had parishioners taking care of me who were loving and kind, who did everything they could to see that I had the requisite clothes, I had a bicycle. I was actually very privileged."

Sharp Joukowsky thinks the emotional toll was greater on her older brother, Hastings.

"All those years, our father never threw a ball to him," she said.

Hastings Sharp, 75, who lives near his sister in Providence, has this to say about his parents: "They were incredible people, but we had to fend for ourselves."

* * *

In his grandparents' defense, Artemis Joukowsky says there was no single moment when they were able to make a grand moral calculation. Such equations may be possible in hindsight. But in real time, the Sharps were caught up in "a growing series of moral imperatives they could not possibly foresee," he said.

When they set out for Europe in January 1939, Germany had seized the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and refugees were flowing across the continent. The American Unitarian Association asked numerous ministers to go to Europe before Waitstill, 37, and his social-worker wife, Martha, 33, agreed.

Prague was home to one of the world's largest Unitarian congregations, which was helping refugees of all stripes -- Jews, trade unionists, political dissenters.

The Sharps arrived to lend a hand in February. A month later, the city was occupied.

"Once they saw what was happening, they became obsessed with the refugees and could not bring themselves to leave," said author Susan Subak, who is writing a book about the Unitarian rescue effort.

Artemis Joukowsky says his grandfather had such a "Sunday school outlook" that he initially hesitated to break laws, but within a short time he was changing money on the black market and bribing officials.

On March 15, 1939, the day the Germans took Prague, Martha guided an anti-Nazi leader to asylum at the British Embassy. A few days later, Waitstill arranged for a member of the Czech parliament to be smuggled out of a hospital morgue in a body bag.

The Nazis soon closed the Sharps' office and threw their furniture into the street. But the couple stayed another five months and got out just ahead of the Gestapo.

On their second foray to Europe, in mid-1940, they worked in Marseilles and helped smuggle people across the Pyrenees into neutral Portugal. One of their close collaborators was Varian Fry, a 32-year-old New York editor who devoted himself to saving European intellectuals and was the first U.S. citizen placed by Yad Vashem on its "Righteous Among the Nations" honor roll, which includes Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

Since the Sharps burned most of their records to keep them out of Nazi hands, no one knows how many lives they saved. Artemis Joukowsky estimates they helped 3,500 refugees in Prague, though it is unclear how many survived. In Marseilles, they pioneered routes that hundreds used to escape.

* * *

The Sharps were honored at Yad Vashem in June. The growing recognition of their heroism has helped their descendants come to terms with the decisions they made.

"Telling the story has gone a long way in healing some of the wounds of the past. My mother and uncle discovering what my parents did has helped them to forgive," Artemis Joukowsky said. When he began compiling evidence about the Sharps, he added, his mother "would never talk about this stuff. Now it's a story she's willing to tell."

Looking back, Martha Sharp Joukowsky said, "The values I hold for myself may not be the same that I held my parents to. I think that sacrifice is something they felt they had to do. I don't make any value judgments. I can't. . . . Is home important? Yes, but it is more important that ideas are put into action. They felt the world was in a crisis, they had to rise to the occasion. Nobody else was."

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