Martha and Waitstill Sharp, from Wellesley, Massachusetts, have been honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel, as Righteous Among the Nations. During World War II, the Sharps helped hundreds of people escape from Nazi persecution.
In 1938, Hitler threatened to unleash a European war unless the Sudetenland, a border area of Czechoslovakia with a large ethnic German population, was ceded to Germany. The leaders of Britain, France, Italy, and Germany held a conference in Munich on September 29–30, 1938. In what became known as the Munich Pact, they agreed to the German annexation of the Sudetenland in exchange for a pledge of peace from Hitler. The Munich agreement, which gave Hitler the Sudetenland, stunned Unitarians in the United States, who had close ties to Czech churches. The flow of political dissidents, Jews, and other refugees from Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland into the Unitarian church in Prague increased. Robert Dexter, director of the American Unitarian Association's (AUA) Department of Social Relations, recalled, “I knew there would be untold suffering in the Nazi-occupied territories, and I was equally convinced that something should be done about it by those of us who felt we had an obligation to aid our friends who had been so betrayed.”
Within a week of the Munich Pact, the AUA passed a resolution to explore a relief enterprise for refugees in Czechoslovakia. Shortly thereafter, Dexter sailed for Europe to assess the situation, which led to his recommendation that the Unitarians focus on the needs of unregistered refugees—especially Jews and anti-Nazi Germans from the Sudetenland, Austria, and Germany. Armed with more than $40,000 to support the newly formed Commission for Service in Czechoslovakia, the AUA selected the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a young minister from the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his wife, Martha, an experienced social worker, to bear Unitarian witness and to assist refugees in Europe during the period of Nazi persecution.
Motivated by their faith and their moral outrage, the Sharps made the difficult decision to accept the charge, leaving their two small children in the care of close friends in the congregation. On February 4, 1939, they set sail for Europe. Stopping several times en route to Prague, the Sharps set up a network of volunteers and agencies that assisted them over the next six months as they traveled in and out of Prague registering refugees, bringing applicants to the attention of embassies, finding the scholarships or employment necessary for emigration, securing releases from prisons, and arranging travel to safer destinations in London, Paris, or Geneva. They faced enormous bureaucratic hurdles at every step.
The Sharps' work was divided, as it would be for the following six years, between relief and emigration assistance. Much of their activity involved individual cases. On one occasion, however, Martha escorted 35 refugees—among them journalists, political leaders, and two children whose parents had committed suicide—to England. In another instance, she arranged for a group of children to leave in cooperation with the British organization called Movement for the Care of Children from Germany.
On the night of March 14–15, 1939, just before the Germans occupied Prague, the Sharps burned the notes they had compiled during their activities, and stopped maintaining records. Although they were in greater peril when the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) closed down their office at the end of July 1939, they remained committed to completing their mission. Waitstill Sharp left Prague in early August for a conference in Switzerland but was prevented from returning to the German-occupied Czech provinces. Martha left Prague alone a week later, learning only later that she had escaped arrest by the Gestapo by one day. Reunited in Paris, the couple sailed together for the United States at the end of August.
After the Sharps' departure from Europe, the AUA's Robert Dexter and his wife, Elisabeth, embarked on a 10-country fact-finding mission that would lead to the establishment of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). Neither the Sharps nor the Dexters understood then that the doors that were open to refugees at that moment were beginning to close.
In the first seven years after Hitler came to power in 1933, an estimated 260,000 refugees from Germany emigrated to North and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, among them 90,000 Jews who were admitted to the United States. But between 1940 and the end of World War II, a period when the need was greatest, only 35,000 Jewish refugees were allowed into the United States. This was due partly to US restrictions on immigration, partly to the German ban on Jewish emigration, and partly to the unavailability of ship transport and other wartime impediments.
Thus, the Sharps, the Dexters, and Unitarian minister Charles Joy—considered the five founding staff members of the Unitarian Service Committee—struggled to overcome the reluctance of the United States and other governments to admit refugees from Nazi terror.
In May 1940, Frederick May Eliot, president of the AUA, wrote to Waitstill and Martha Sharp in Wellesley. He asked them to go to France as the Unitarian Service Committee's “ambassadors extraordinary.” The Sharps agreed once again to carry out this work. But before they could implement their plan to establish an office in Paris, the Germans occupied the city. The couple then set up the first USC office in neutral Portugal, where throughout the war Lisbon remained a last hope for refugees trying to find passage to safer ports.
During these years, the Sharps, the Dexters, and Joy each staffed the USC's Lisbon office and, in collaboration with many other individuals and organizations, helped several thousand people escape. The Unitarians focused on political refugees—people who had spoken out again Nazism in Germany or fascism in Spain and whom other organizations were reluctant to help—as well as academics, scientists, and intellectuals.
Among those the Sharps directly helped escape was the German Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger. Waitstill Sharp himself sailed with Feuchtwanger and his wife, Marta, to New York—a trip ultimately made possible when Martha Sharp gave up her ticket to ensure passage for Feuchtwanger.
The Unitarians also opened an office in Marseilles, which was the primary port in unoccupied France from which refugees were fleeing. During this time, USC staff worked closely with Varian Fry, a US citizen sent to Europe by the new Emergency Rescue Committee (the forerunner of today's International Rescue Committee) in New York. Fry asked Waitstill Sharp to be the ERC's representative in Lisbon, and he himself established the ERC office in Marseilles. In the early years of the war, the USC focused on securing US visas and procuring the many travel documents needed by each refugee to cross borders. They also assisted some of Fry's clients in negotiating the French-Spanish border, or more commonly, with travel arrangements or a small stipend when they reached Lisbon.
One of Martha Sharp's earliest projects in Marseilles focused on helping children emigrate, and she doggedly battled numerous bureaucracies to secure exit visas, transit permits, and identity papers for 29 children and 10 adults. She sailed from Lisbon with two of the children and four adults in early December 1940; the others followed on a second voyage. One of several Jewish children on this trip was 14-year-old Eva Rosemary Feigl, who, in 2005—65 years later—still remembered arriving at the port of New York on December 23, 1940, and finding Martha Sharp there at the dock to meet them. It was “a day I will never forget,” she said.
Yad Vashem established the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1963 to honor non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Martha Sharp is the first woman from the United States to be so honored; the Sharps are only the second and third US citizens, after Varian Fry, to receive this title.