White Crosses: Vigil Along the US/Mexico Border
Defending a Sacred Trust: High Stakes for America’s Social Security

Defying the Nazis: Discovering the Heroic Legacy of Martha and Waitstill Sharp

By Artemis Joukowsky

Martha and Waitstill Sharp
Martha and Waitstill Sharp

The discovery that completely changed my life began with a junior high school humanities class assignment.

It was 1976, and I was a freshman attending the Allen-Stevenson School in New York City. My history and social studies teacher, John Pariseau, assigned a class report on the subject of moral courage. Pariseau further instructed us to build our papers around a personal interview.  

When I got home that afternoon, I casually mentioned the assignment to my mother. She just as casually suggested that I talk to her parents about their adventures in Europe during World War II. “They played an important role in rescuing Jews and other people from the Nazis,” she said. “Their story would make an interesting paper.”

What?  I was momentarily speechless—rare for me. “Mummy Mummy and Grandpa Sharp?” I blurted. “You’re kidding me!”

“Not at all,” she answered. “Go talk to them. They’ll tell you.”  

She might as well have said that my grandparents conquered polio, invented jazz, or built the Empire State Building. My grandfather, Waitstill Hastings Sharp, a retired Unitarian minister, had never so much as mentioned World War II to me, much less acknowledged that he’d played a role in it. Likewise, for my grandmother, Martha Sharp Cogan. 

Long divorced, it was difficult to picture the two of them together under any circumstance, let alone as a dauntless duo carrying out dangerous rescue missions. To think that these two remote, elderly—by all appearances absolutely ordinary people—had gone up against Nazi was inconceivable to me. 

When I explained the assignment to my grandmother and my mother’s suggestion that I speak with her, she said she’d be very happy to talk with me. She invited me to come over for an “official” interview. Days later she ushered me into her office, and we sat across from each other. I loaded a sixty-minute cassette into my portable tape recorder, and looked at this woman whose past—whose existence beyond being ‘Mummy Mummy’—I had never truly considered. I clicked on the tape machine and said something along the lines of, “Well, tell me what you and Grandpa did during the war.”

The story that I began to uncover in those first talks turned out to be so much more than simply the makings of a history paper—it was the stuff of history itself. She started me out slowly with a description of the January night in 1939 when she and Waitstill learned, to their complete surprise, that they’d been invited by the Unitarian Association to undertake the Unitarian Church’s first-ever international relief project, a mission of mercy to the imperiled citizens of Czechoslovakia. I learned about the frantic work of securing travel papers for social democrats, Jews, artists, philosophers and the long list of others in Czechoslovakia who faced certain extermination if they couldn’t escape. She told me of their desperate efforts to pluck these otherwise doomed souls from the Nazis’ grasp; how exhilarating it was to succeed; how heart sick they were when they failed. From time to time it was necessary to remind myself that this was Mummy Mummy talking, not some retired OSS operative. I discovered that my grandparents’ actions during the war were incredible examples of simple decency, standing up to unspeakable evil—these people I barely knew had undertaken truly heroic, lifesaving acts in the face of injustice, hatred and brutality.  

In the days that followed that initial interview, I returned to my grandmother’s brownstone and filled up more and more of those cassette tapes. So began my education into the extraordinary lives and history-shaping accomplishments of Waitstill and Martha Sharp. Those names may be unfamiliar to even the most dedicated students of history, but the Sharps should be considered among the inspiring heroes of the Second World War.  

Defying the NazisI got an ‘A’ on that paper (the only A I ever received). But it changed my life in ways that were much more significant than an improved report card. I had begun what would be my life’s passion of researching and sharing the Sharps’ story with others. What began with interviews with my grandmother and grandfather developed into an effort with many collaborators, individual and institutional. A short time after my grandmother’s death in December of 1999, I had the fun of discovering with Bill Sullivan and Larry Benaquist of the Cohen Center at Keene State a trove of documents, photos and personal artifacts dating back to her school days. The vast and eclectic archive includes everything from personal letters, official reports, and photos to maps, handwritten notes, calendars, date books, hotel tabs, ticket stubs, playbills, souvenirs and memorabilia of my grandparents’ travels. There are a number of deeply touching love notes between them in the collection, as well. In all over 200,000 documents are now housed at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, Brown University, Harvard University, and the Cohen Center at Keene State. Much of the text of this book is drawn from those primary sources  as well as from their oral histories recorded in 1978, my grandfather’s biography written in 1949, and my grandmother’s unpublished manuscript, Church Mouse in the White House. Where necessary, I’ve added some additional text to provide background and context.

The Sharps as they emerged from the research were quintessentially American, in the best and truest sense. They were relentless optimists, but also realists; fearless, but hardly foolhardy; resourceful and quick-witted; brave, but more importantly, determined and tireless. They persevered through terror and anger, joy, frustration, privation, tragedy and innumerable heart-stopping moments when lives hung in the balance. Through it all, these creedless freethinkers were buoyed by a fullness of spirit that only intensified as the threat of death lurked ever nearer.

The Sharps acted strictly as a matter of conscience, and repeatedly put themselves in situations of mortal peril without any consideration of material gain. As both my grandparents emphasized to me, if the civilized world learned anything from the Holocaust it is that to placate, or ignore, an evil such as Nazism is morally wrong, and practically ensures there will be great suffering as a consequence. They’d seen this for themselves, first hand. Yet on the evidence of our subsequent experience with the likes of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans, or the slaughters in Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere, the civilized world must relearn this hard lesson with every generation. 

Martha and Waitstill Sharp never saw themselves as extraordinary. They simply believed that good people need to stand up for what is good in the world, and that each of us should try to make a difference for the better in the world around us. Through their lived example, Waitstill and Martha Sharp remind us that confronting evil wherever and whenever it appears is more than a principle. It is a moral imperative, requiring direct action by individuals as well as nations. As I move from the role of grandson and into the role of storyteller, I can’t think of a more important message to carry from the Sharps’ world to ours today.

I was at the ceremony in 2006 at Yad Vashem, when the state of Israel formally proclaimed my grandparents as “Righteous Among the Nations.” I felt their spirits standing with me that day, more powerfully than ever before. 

Many of the people whose lives were saved understood the debt of gratitude they owed the Sharps, and in the postwar years made of point of thanking them and honoring their work. But most of the people whose lives were affected by the actions of my grandparents never knew who the Sharps were.

For me, in the years after putting together that first humanities paper, the legacy of the Sharps has become a life’s passion.  And, as I’ve  immersed myself in their story, it has been gratifying to see that some other people have championed their achievements as well. For many years, I have felt driven to explore, understand, and promote my grandparents’ extraordinary acts of heroism as best I could. This book is part of my continuing efforts to give the legacy of the Sharps the attention I feel it deserves.

I remember a wonderful, provocative question that my grandmother often asked me through the years: “What are you going to do in your life that’s important?”

I’ve learned to answer that question in many ways, but, as I will always be the grandson of the Sharps, I have taken on a lifetime commitment to make sure that the memory of their work and the legacy of their lives are carried forth. The actions and achievements of my grandparents deserve to be honored, and their courage and principles deserve to be celebrated. The story of the lives of Martha and Waitstill Sharp deserves to be told, and now I’ve had the chance to help them tell it.

 To me, nothing could be more important.


About the Author 

Artemis Joukowsky, the grandson of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, has spent decades researching his grandparents’ efforts. He is also the director and, with Ken Burns, coproducer of the companion documentary film,Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War. Additionally, Joukowsky has devoted much of his life’s work to improving the experience of living with multiple disabilities and promoting community services since he was diagnosed at age fourteen with spinal muscular atrophy, type III (SMA). Joukowsky lives in the Boston suburbs with his four daughters.