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February 4: Waitstill and Martha

Lawrence Bush
February 4, 2017
Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Martha, a social worker, left two young children in the care of friends in the U.S. and sailed for Prague on this date in 1939 to help refugees escape Nazi rule in Czechoslovakia. “They stopped several times en route to Prague,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “setting up a network of volunteers and agencies. . . . The Sharps’ activities included 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.” Just before the German occupation of Prague in March, the Sharps burned their notes and stopped keeping records. The Gestapo shuttered their office four months later. During most of the remainder of the war, they maintained a Unitarian Service Committee office in Lisbon (Portugal was neutral) and helped several thousand people escape, including many activists and veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were the second and third U.S. citizens, after Varian Fry, to be named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. To see footage about the Sharps by Ken Burns, look below. “I want to inspire a new generation of people to do this kind of work. I’m interested in challenging the population to say, What are we going to do to stop the world from allowing a genocide like this from ever happening again?”--Artemis Joukowsky III (grandson)

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.