Wellesley couple helped hundreds flee Nazi regime during Holocaust
In February 1939, a young Wellesley couple embarked on a mission that would alter their lives and thousands of others. The Rev. Waitstill Sharp, 37, a Unitarian minister, and his wife, Martha, 33, set aside personal concerns for a vastly more urgent cause. Leaving their two young children behind, they arrived in Czechoslovakia a month before the German occupation and began assisting Prague’s growing refugee population.
Over the next two years, the Sharps helped secure food, shelter, visas, and freedom for hundreds of Jews and non-Jews targeted by the Nazi regime. Now deceased, the couple seldom spoke publicly about their work abroad. But last month, from an Israeli tribunal to a local elementary school, their rescue efforts spoke loudly for them. And an international honor previously bestowed upon only one American was added to their legacy.
Two people who campaigned vigorously for that honor on the Sharps’ behalf are Rosemarie Feigl, 80, an Austrian Jew who immigrated to America in 1940, and Artemis Joukowsky III, a Sherborn businessman and grandson of the Sharps. Together they recently visited the Eliot Montessori School in Natick to talk about the Holocaust. One 12-year old asked whether any children had died in the concentration camps. Yes, said Feigl, many did. How did you feel, the girl wanted to know. Scared, Feigl answered.
”I’m not one to forget the past,” Feigl remarked during an interview the next day at Joukowsky’s house. ”My grandparents died in Auschwitz. Martha Sharp saved my life and my parents.”
Joukowsky, sitting nearby, said that because Feigl is alive to bear witness, another rescue has occurred: that of his grandparents’ rightful place in the roll of the righteous.
”They never got the proper credit,” Joukowsky said with a smile. ”Now they have.”
Behind the smile, and the visit by Feigl, was this fall’s announcement that the Sharps had been chosen Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority in Jerusalem. Established in 1953, Yad Vashem has selected more than 21,000 non-Jews for the honor, including 499 this year. Among past honorees is Oskar Schindler, whose story inspired ”Schindler’s List,” the Academy Award-winning film.
The selection criteria are demandingly specific, including testimony from at least one living witness. Until this year, the only American selected was Varian Fry, who worked closely with the Sharps and is often referred to as ”the American Schindler.”
When news of the Sharps’ selection was announced last month to the Wellesley congregation they once led, its significance began to sink in, especially among members of the local Unitarian community. A special celebration will take place tonight at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Wellesley Hills, with Feigl in attendance. In June, a formal induction ceremony will be held in Israel.
”So many stories about the Holocaust are negative,” Joukowsky said when asked about his grandparents’ legacy. ”This is a story about ordinary people who did remarkable work by taking risks. And that’s an example for all of us today.”
A dangerous trip
What the Sharps took on 65 years ago, and how Yad Vashem came to validate their acts, is part history lesson and part detective saga — a tale of two individuals whose heroics might have been lost to posterity without the efforts of relatives who possessed the resources and motivation to set the record straight.
Martha Dickie Sharp, a Providence native, and Waitstill Sharp, whom she married in 1928, were highly educated people with a deep faith in religious liberalism when they left for Europe. Waitstill had a law degree from Harvard, Martha a master’s degree from Radcliffe. They had settled into their Wellesley pastorate in 1936, when their son, Hastings, was 3 and their daughter, Martha, a newborn.
The Sharps’ first trip abroad ended in August 1939, with the Gestapo closing in on them and Martha facing imminent arrest. Less than a year later, they headed for Lisbon under the auspices of the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee. As much of southern France soon fell under Vichy control, the Sharps focused on two especially vulnerable constituencies: prominent intellectuals and refugee children.
”Waitstill and Martha learned the legal and illegal escape routes out of occupied France,” recalled Artemis Joukowsky, who is working on a film and book about his grandparents, in a speech last month to Wellesley’s Unitarian congregation. ”They traded money on the black market in order to bribe border guards and pay for rail, air, or sea transportation for the refugees. On occasion, they personally escorted high-profile refugees out of France.”
The refugees included Nobel laureate physicist Otto Meyerhof and writers Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas), Franz Werfel (”The Song of Bernadette”), and Lion Feuchtwanger (”Proud Destiny”). Feuchtwanger’s rescue from Marseilles was particularly dangerous, and therefore of special interest to Yad Vashem, because his name had been posted on the Nazi’s ”most wanted” list. With the aid of Red Cross officials, the Sharps joined Varian Fry, head of the Emergency Rescue Committee, in smuggling Feuchtwanger out of Europe and to the United States, where he landed in September 1940.
Calling the risks taken by the Sharps ”superhuman,” Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, wrote in an e-mail last week that the commission was particularly impressed by Martha Sharp’s heroism.
”Sharp, who dressed up as a French farming woman, accompanied Lion Feuchtwanger on a risky train ride from Marseilles to the Franco-Spanish border,” Paldiel wrote. ”Then distracted . . . Spanish border guards” so Feuchtwanger’s false identity would not be discovered. At the same time, Paldiel noted, Waitstill ”was also involved in illegal acts” and risking imprisonment, if not worse, at the hands of the Nazis.
As the refugee situation worsened, the Sharps concentrated on rescuing as many as they could, often working apart while maintaining close contact from their separate theaters of operation. Martha toured refugee camps and established a vital milk-distribution network in southern France. While seeking visas for refugee children and their families in the summer of 1940, she met Eva Rosemarie Feigl, the teenage daughter of a Vienna lawyer. That December, Feigl joined a group of 27 children — nine of them Jewish — who escaped to America.
”She didn’t do it for money or to become famous,” Feigl wrote in a testimonial letter to Yad Vashem last winter. ”And she didn’t do it for any specific religious reason” other than ”to be a good human being.”
The Sharps returned stateside in 1940 and resumed life in Wellesley, but their personal story lacked a fairy-tale ending. For the next few years, the Sharps traveled abroad on international relief missions, raising money and awareness for the Unitarian Service Committee and other organizations. But as time passed, according to Joukowsky, the couple began pursuing different agendas — and eventually separate lives altogether.
In 1948, Martha Sharp ran for Congress against Republican Joseph Martin Jr., the future speaker of the House. Having captured the Democratic nomination on a pro-labor, internationalist platform — the Sharps were known as ”Guardian Angels of European Children” — she was first portrayed as a cookie-baking housewife, then smeared as a suspected Communist.
Among the voluminous FBI files on Martha that Joukowsky recently obtained is a J. Edgar Hoover memo promising to look into the story ”going around up there,” as Hoover put it, that Sharp had ties to the Communist Party.
The rumors never panned out, and Sharp herself lashed back at the ”Gestapo tactics,” complaining that her phone had been tapped and her campaign headquarters burglarized. The damage had been done, though, and she lost the election by more than 30,000 votes.
”My mother was deeply hurt. It was a cruel smear job. But she never wanted to talk about it,” said her daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, a Brown University archeologist. What toll the war and its aftermath took on her parents’ marriage is unclear, she added, because they ”did not talk about personal things.” But by 1950 they were headed for a stormy divorce.
Martha moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Truman administration. In 1957, she married David Cogan, a wealthy Jewish businessman, and devoted herself to charitable and humanitarian causes here and abroad, serving on the boards of Hadassah, the Girls Clubs of America, and other nonprofit organizations. She died in Providence in 1999, at age 94.
Waitstill Sharp, also remarried, returned to the ministry, and settled first in Chicago, then Flint, Mich., for 20 years. His involvement in civil rights and antiwar activities precluded much talk about rescuing wartime refugees, Martha Joukowsky said. Later, he retired to Greenfield, where he died in 1984.
”What they did, they did hand-in-hand,” Joukowsky said. ”So it’s appropriate they be brought back together by this honor.”
Joukowsky’s two sons, Artemis and Michael, pushed hard for Yad Vashem to hear their grandparents’ case. A private detective was hired to track down any surviving children whom their grandmother had rescued. The family also underwrote a documentary film about the Sharps that is being assembled by Keene State College faculty members, Lawrence Benaquist and William Sullivan.
A year ago, Feigl was located and happily agreed to testify on Martha’s behalf. More help was provided by Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that provides financial support for non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Stahl introduced Joukowsky to Paldiel last winter, and over the next 10 months Paldiel’s committee met twice to debate the Sharps’ case.
”My grandmother’s case was a slam-dunk, because we had Rosemarie,” Artemis Joukowsky noted. ”But Waitstill’s was harder. The issue for the Israelis was, did my grandparents face physical danger? Were there Gestapo around — or merely Vichy officials? There was no question my grandfather had risked his life, but it contradicted the history Fry had written.”
A key break was the discovery of a document typed by Fry and stored in the archives of Columbia University. It corroborated Waitstill’s role in rescuing Feuchtwanger and was, as Joukowsky put it, an ”Oh, my God” moment.
”We weren’t out to destroy Fry’s credibility, because he worked very hard,” Joukowsky said. ”And we didn’t want to be on the bad side of history. But once they saw that [document], it was clear Waitstill would be chosen.”
The votes were taken in September, yet news of the Sharps’ honor has been slow to spread until last week, when the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee issued a press release about the award. When she got the call from Israel last month, Stahl said, ”I was happy for the family, of course, but for students, too. They need to know that Americans not only fought to make the world safe, but that ordinary people like the Sharps did extraordinary things.”
Is Fry’s legacy diminished by the Sharps’ story? On the contrary, according to Paldiel. What the Sharps did ”adds greater significance” to it by fleshing out details of Feuchtwanger’s rescue, he said. Nevertheless, he acknowledges, Yad Vashem is ”fighting against time” as the survivor population ages and credible testimony becomes harder to obtain.
Still, he writes, ”We have a moral obligation to certify and acknowledge all stories of rescue during the Holocaust, as a legacy and lesson to future generations that man has the potential to act in the most elevated humanitarian form possible.”
Sixteen descendants of Waitstill and Martha Sharp will travel to Israel next summer for the induction ceremony.