Working through the night, Martha and Waitstill Sharp burned all their notes and papers. After this they would keep no records of the refugees they smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Europe. For their own safety and for the safety of those they were assisting, nothing could be written. A simple church mission had turned into a dangerous cloak-and-dagger proposition.
The Sharps, who had degrees from Harvard and Radcliffe and two beautiful young children, had left behind a life of comfort and privilege in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, where Waitstill served as minister of the Unitarian church. Now they found themselves secretly burning documents in an office in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on the night of March 14, 1939. What had led them to that moment?
In September of 1938, the Munich Pact ceded the Sudetenland, the border regions of Czechoslovakia, to the Nazis in exchange for a promise of peace. The flow of refugees to Prague's Unitarian church increased as Jews, political dissidents, intellectuals, and others targeted by the Nazis fled the Sudetenland following the Nazi annexation. The American Unitarian Association (AUA) asked Rev. Waitstill Sharp to visit Czechoslovakia and coordinate relief work there. The Sharps left for Europe in February, 1939, leaving their children, ages 3 and 6, in the care of close friends from the congregation. When they accepted that mission they did not know what lay ahead.
At first, the Sharps' work in Prague included setting up a network of volunteers to obtain visas, passage, education, and employment for refugees. However, the situation for refugees rapidly deteriorated. When it became clear that the Nazis were approaching the Sharps, instead of returning home, burned their records and vowed to continue their work. The following day, the Nazis marched into Prague.
That same day, Martha guided a top resistance leader to asylum at the British embassy. Stopped by Nazi guards three times, Martha used her American passport to get both of them safely through each checkpoint. A few days later, Waitstill arranged for a member of the Czech parliament to be smuggled from a hospital morgue in a body bag.
The Gestapo would not allow the work of people like the Sharps to continue. In July their office was closed and the furniture thrown into the street. Still they stayed on in Prague. In August, Waitstill attended a conference in Switzerland and was not allowed to re-enter occupied Czechoslovakia. Under threat of imminent arrest by the Gestapo, Martha fled Prague alone. The Sharps reunited in Paris, and sailed for home.
In May of 1940, Frederick May Eliot, president of the AUA, asked the Sharps to return to Europe as representatives of the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee (USC). With much of Europe now under Nazi occupation they worked from Marseilles in Free France and in Lisbon, Portugal, the last port of hope for many refugees from Nazi-occupied lands.
Among those helped were Nobel laureate physicist Otto Meyerhof and writers Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and Lion Feuchtwanger. Smuggling Feuchtwanger out of Europe posed particular problems as he was on the Nazi's "most wanted" list. Dressed as a French peasant woman, Martha accompanied Feuchtwanger by train from Marseilles to the Spanish border where she distracted the guards so they would not discover him. When no extra tickets were available, Martha gave up her own ticket so that Feuchtwanger and his wife could sail to New York with Waitstill.
But not all of those the Sharps helped were famous. Martha worked tirelessly to find ways to break through the anti-Semitic United States immigration bureaucracy to allow Jewish children to come to the United States. In 1940, Marianne Scheckler was 12 years old, one of triplet sisters who had fled Vienna with their parents just steps ahead of the Nazis. Now a resident of Laguna Hills, California, Marianne Scheckler-Feder still remembers that day and Martha Sharp: "I remember a figure. She was a very, very elegant lady. Kind of serious and very concerned. You looked up to her... What she did for us was outstanding. It will never be forgotten."
What Martha Sharp did, she did for many, but she did not do it alone. The Sharps worked with others from the Unitarian Service Committee and other agencies. One of their closest associates was Varian Fry from the Emergency Rescue Committee. Varian Fry was the first American to be honored by Israel's Yad Vashem ("Hand of God," the state Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority) as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a list that includes Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. Martha and Waitstill Sharp are the second and third Americans so honored.
In addition to being honored by Yad Vashem in 2006, the Sharps have been recognized by The United States Holocaust Museum and the United States House of Representatives. But more importantly, their work is recognized by more than 2,000 adults and children that the Unitarian Service Committee helped rescue from Nazi persecution.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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