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How a Massachusetts couple saved thousands from Nazi death camps

September 20, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
It started with a school project: Interview someone with moral courage. For Artemis Joukowsky, it became an enduring project to explore the life of his grandparents, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who helped more than 2,000 people avoid deportation to Nazi death camps. Judy Woodruff speaks with Joukowsky and Ken Burns, who tell the story of the Sharps in a new documentary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A new Ken Burns documentary airs tonight on PBS, and for this story, he co-directs with another filmmaker for whom the details are very personal.

I talked with the men at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about the cloak and dagger story behind “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.”

ACTOR: A telephone rang, and it was probably the most momentous telephone call that I ever received. I knew whose voice it was, the voice of my closest friend, Everett Baker.

He said, “Waitstill, Martha, I am inviting you to undertake the first intervention against evil by the denomination to be started immediately overseas.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with that call in 1939, the life of unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, would never be the same, nor would the world.

The Sharps, who lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts, were sent by their church to lead a secret and perilous rescue of refugees and dissidents in Europe before and after the start of World War II. They directly helped over 100 people escape and had a part in helping over 2,000 people avoid deportation to Nazi death camps.

They expected to be gone for several months, and instead were gone two years.

MORDECAI PALDIEL, Holocaust Scholar: They were motivated from the beginning to go out there into the kingdom of hell and try to get some people out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They left two young children at home.

Artemis Joukowsky is the grandson of the Sharps, and son of the Martha Sharp who was named after her courageous mother.

Artemis, this really has been almost a lifelong project for you, since you were, what, in high school?

ARTEMIS JOUKOWSKY, Co-Director, “Defying the Nazis”: Yes, I was in ninth grade, and I was given an assignment to interview someone of moral courage.

And I went home and I said to my mom, “Who should I interview?”

She said: “Talk to your grandmother. She did some cool things during World War II.”

And that interview changed my life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was it that she shared with you? I mean, obviously, you were young. You were — but she shared something with you that stayed.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What was it?

ARTEMIS JOUKOWSKY: I think a love for people, a love for difference, a love for celebrating what is good in the world and what makes the world so rich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken, you have so many different film ideas to choose from. What was it about this story?

KEN BURNS, Co-Director, “Defying the Nazis”: You know, this is a story that chose me.

I didn’t start this project. It was started years and years ago by Artemis. And he brought it to me. And I looked at the germ of the story. And I was so stunned, that I had to drop everything.

It’s its these two lone figures in the face of this gigantic tidal wave of the greatest cataclysm in human history, the Second World War. And what happens is, is that cataclysm becomes so big that it’s undefinable.

We say six million Jews, and we can’t actually personalize it in a way. So, here was an opportunity, a kind of back door, a stage door to go through these two extraordinary, but improbable heroes, courageous people who are throwing us, the audience, into an espionage story, a spy story.

I mean, this is a story of courage, but also of sacrifice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, the more he dug for documents, the more complicated and interesting the story became.

ARTEMIS JOUKOWSKY: I didn’t even know what I had.

And then, over the next 15 years, and working with Ken’s team, we have now begun to create not just the story of what we’re sharing with the world, but an archive that is all over the world. We have archives now in France, in Germany, in the Czech Republic that are connected to our collections.

We have discovered over 200,000 documents that are now archived here at the museum. And what’s extraordinary is how the documents come alive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you also lost a lot of documents, because documents, thousands, millions of pages had to be burned to keep them from the Nazis.

ARTEMIS JOUKOWSKY: Yes, exactly. Yes.

What is so remarkable about this project is how many people are coming forward today saying, the Sharps helped us in this way. We have documents that show the Sharps helped us.

And this very large network of underground, you know, rescuers, both the Jewish community, the Protestant community, the Catholic community, others who saw rescue as something that they had to do for their faith.

KEN BURNS: What he’d sent was this diamond in the rough. And you realize that the story was everything, and that you can always find a way to tell a story.

If there’s no pictures, then you find the documents. If there are no documents, then you find the pictures, or you get live cinematography, or you do something.

NARRATOR: Dr. Otto Meyerhof, the Jewish Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, who was hiding out in a small coastal village north of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: To that end, some of those rescued are portrayed in the film through narration and photos.

Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish novelist and playwright, is one:

ACTOR: Why are you here doing what you’re doing?

ACTOR: I’m just as capable of the many sins of human nature as anyone else, but I believe that the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are interviews with those who are still alive, like Rosemarie Feigl of Vienna.

ROSEMARIE FEIGL, Holocaust Survivor: My father went from consulate to consulate trying to get visas to go anywhere that was plausible. That’s how he met Martha Sharp, who saved my life.

And my mother just packed my things. Martha gave us all beige berets, and there are pictures of us in those beige berets.

ACTRESS: We realized that we were in the front lines against Nazism. Waitstill looked at me and, holding my hand tightly, whispered, “Courage.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a sense of what, for her, was the hardest, the scariest moment?

ARTEMIS JOUKOWSKY: I think facing up to a Nazi official, knowing that this could be death.

I think negotiating with people who she viewed in her mind as being not connected to human reality. I think she felt afraid for everyone she tried to help. I think that notion of this being just a drop in the bucket of how many people could have been saved, I think she lived with that pain and that regret all her life.

This story is not just about celebrating their lives. It’s an instruction manual for what — how we need to operate today as people and as civilizations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, at the same time, as Ken said, there was a personal toll on your family, on your mother.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And there was some suggestion that the project is an effort to do some healing.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

ARTEMIS JOUKOWSKY: I think it happened. I think my mother saw the film in the last month, as we’re getting ready to share this with the world. And she said, it’s brilliant.

And she understands how she felt as a child. We portray her in the film as a vulnerable child, just as the children my grandmother was rescuing.

KEN BURNS: It has something that is universal to it. And that’s what I love.

You see in action, particularly today, where we’re wrestling in our own country with what direction we want to take, do we wish to go this way or do we wish to go that way, that these people opened their hearts.

He could give a sermon every Sunday. He could minister to the common problems of his parishioners. And then, all of a sudden, he’s in Nazi-occupied Prague, suddenly learning how to launder money. And she’s trying to escape the Gestapo tail.

And you suddenly realize, but this is all true.


KEN BURNS: It is all true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Towards the end, the film shows the Sharps’ daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, aided by Rosemarie Feigl, lighting the Eternal Flame at Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem. It was 10 years ago when the Sharps were honored as the Righteous Among the Nations. They are two of only five Americans honored among 25,000 people with that distinction.

The documentary airs tonight on PBS stations. Check local listings.

And Artemis Joukowsky has just published a companion book about this story as well.