A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Martha Ingham Dickie attended services at her local Unitarian Church from the age of three. The church of Martha’s childhood believed in religious free-thinking, respect for diversity and world service, and these values seeped into her soul and was the foundation of her entire life of service to others.
In 1927 Martha met a like-minded soul mate in Waitstill Hastings Sharp, and they soon married. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Waitstill was also deeply endowed with a keen Unitarian faith. He was ordained in 1933 and became minister to a Unitarian congregation in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
At the Unitarian Universalist Society in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, the church where Waitstill Sharp was minister before beginning the daring mission to Europe, Martha worked with the community’s young people and took charge of the church’s religious education program and women’s group meetings. While Waitstill was uncomfortable with small talk and social gatherings, Martha’s ease in dealing with people provided a balance for their ministry.
Warmed by the affection of the small community and their strong religious faith, Waitstill and Martha enjoyed an idyllic existence in the early years of their marriage. But far off world events would soon intervene and challenge them to travel far from their home to serve others.
When Hitler assumed power in Germany, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) passed a resolution condemning the persecution of German Jews. Long before the world recognized the hatred and intolerance that would develop into the Holocaust, the Sharps and their Unitarian colleagues saw the human suffering that was taking place in Germany and knew that people were in great danger.
Taking steps to safeguard the Unitarian community in Czechoslovakia, where the activities of 3,500 believers revolved around the main church in Prague, Unitariara, Unitarian leaders in America launched fundraising efforts and called for ”commissioners” to serve as Unitarian witnesses to the Czech people.
The Sharps were among those who answered that call.
Leaving their children — seven-year-old Hastings and two year old Martha — in the care of family and friends, Martha, 33, and Waitstill, 37 set out for Europe to begin their dangerous missionary work.
They arrived in Prague in 1939, a month before the fall of Czechoslovakia. The German occupation represented a mortal threat to the 250,000 refugees who were in Prague at the time and Martha and Waitstill worked feverishly to help people flee the country.
Using Waitstill’s status as a minister to remain in the country, the Sharps brought refugees to the attention of embassies, found scholarships and employment opportunities that would lead to emigration, and secured the release of refugees from prisons.
They also traveled regularly to further their cause. On one trip, Martha led 35 refugees to safety in England. As the situation grew steadily worse, Martha and Waitstill bought food and medicine for the Unitaria congregation, and worked with the Salvation Army to provide meals for refugees. In four months they helped feed 350 individuals who were fleeing the Nazi onslaught and helped 284 to escape the country.
After months of perilous service, the Sharps came to the attention of the Nazi regime. After Waitstill briefly left Prague, he was not allowed to return to the city. Martha continued their work on her own until she left later in 1939, a day before she was to be questioned by the Gestapo.
The couple reunited in Cherbourg and then sailed for New York. Before they arrived in the U.S., Germany had invaded Poland and World War II was officially underway.
Martha and Waitstill returned to war-ravaged Europe a second time, after the fall of Paris. They traveled to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal — the last hope for refugees trying to find passage to safer ports.
With Dr. Robert Dexter, who led the AUA Department of Social Relations, Waitstill founded the Unitarian Univeralist Service Committee (UUSC) in Lisbon in 1940. The UUSC has since grown into an international agency that funds grassroots social justice projects in the U.S. and abroad.
During their second mission in Europe, Martha arranged the journey of 10 adults and 27 children from Vichy, France to the United States. Rosemarie Feigl was among those who Martha helped to escape; she and her parents had fled Vienna earlier, passing through Italy and France before Martha brought them to safety.
”Martha had a terrible time getting us out, bribing officials to get travel documents, perhaps forging some,” Feigl recalled. ”Mrs. Sharp risked her life, when she didn’t even know us.”
Even as she suffered the hardship of being separated from her own children for the duration of the war, Martha’s reputation grew as she helped more families to safety. She soon became known as the ‘guardian angel of European children.’
With their colleagues in Lisbon, the Sharps helped to arrange safe passage out of Europe for 1,000 to 3,000 people. Working with Varian Fry — the only American other than the Sharps to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations to date– Waitstill and Martha helped the internationally known German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta to travel to New York, beyond the clutches of the Nazi regime, which had placed the author on their ”most-wanted” list.
The Sharps remained a step ahead of the Gestapo for six years, while guiding emigrants to safety in England and the United States. Sadly, the frequent separations they endured frayed their marital bond beyond repair and they subsequently divorced. They both remarried later.
Waitstill returned to his ministry and later accepted a position in Cairo, Egypt with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. While in Prague after the war, he was approached by a young Jewish woman to whom he had given 10,000 crowns for the journey to freedom. Of her extended family of 88, she was the only one to survive the war.
Martha also continued her remarkable work. On one occasion she traveled to Iraq on a secret diplomatic mission that led to the release of thousands of Jews from Baghdad jails. After an unsuccessful bid as a Democratic congressional candidate in 1946, she joined the Truman Administration as special assistant to the chairman of the National Security Advisory Committee and also served as associate director of civil defense.
Waitstill died in 1984; Martha died in 1999, at the age of 95.
The Sharps were honored as Righteous Among the Nations in 2005. Their grandchildren, Artemis and his brother Michael, have created a historical record of the Sharps’ work.
The Sharp and Joukowsky families decided to document the saga for history by memorializing Martha and Waitstill in the hope that others might follow their principles, as well as to highlight the legacy of Unitarian outreach and to document the fact that Americans were involved as rescuers during that dark time.
”They would be very embarrassed at being honored for their work,” Artemis said, ”but proud of their legacy in the UUSC, which still works to advance human rights and social justice around the world. Who are the righteous among the nations today?”
- Unitarian Couple Honored For World War II Heroism
by Michelle Bates Deakin
Liberal Religion and Life
Written on 12-12-05
- Church Celebrates Member’s World War II Heroism
by Michelle Bates Deakin
Liberal Religion and Life-12-19-05
- Martha Sharp Coogan (1905-1999) and Waitstill Hastin Sharp (1902-1984
Unitarian Service Committee Pioneers
by Ghanda Di Figlia
Notable American Unitarians Home/Harvard Square Library Home
- They Risked Their Lives So Others Might Live
by Mark Patinkin
- Rhode Island News/ Providence Journal-1-29-06
- Guardian Angel-Martha Dickie Sharp Coogan ’26 (Farewell)
by Emily Gold
Brown Alumni Magazine Online
- Brief highlights from the Martha and Waitstill Sharp Story
Yad Vashem/ Righteous Among the Nations
- Yad Vashem Recognizes First American Women
by Mary Korr-The Jewish Voice & Herald-11-25-05
- Martha and Waitstill Sharp Honored as ”Righteous Among the Nations” At Wellesley UU Church
Unitarian Universalist Association-12-12-05
- Israeli Government Designates Unitarians as ”Righteous Among the Nations for Rescue Work During Holocaust
Unitarian Universalist Association-Boston, 12-6-05
- Deeds Earn Place Among the Righteous-Wellesley Couple Helped Hundreds Flee Nazi Regime During Holocaust
by Joseph P. Kahn/Globe Staff /12-12-05
- The History of Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
- Celebrating the Work of Martha and Waitstill Sharp
Charles Clements, 2005
President, Unitarian Uiversalist Service Committee
- Our Minister-Thoughts From Rev. Margaret Lovett
- Martha Sharp Cognan Fund and the Children’s Wall
- The Novelist Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958)
by Harold von Hofe
Feuchtwanger Memorial Library
Edited by Stephanie Surach