Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Righteous Americans

Given that the Holocaust was, on the whole, a European event, it is not surprising that there are only three Americans listed as the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial. It is, however, because these Americans chose to put themselves in Nazi territory or in close proximity, that their heroism deserves to be acknowledged.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp, a social worker and a Universalist minister, arrived in Europe in 1939 to help the Universalist community in Czechoslovakia. The Sharps helped anyone they could. Their efforts in Prague were cut short, however, when Waitstill was denied re-entry into the city, after leaving the city for a trip. Martha remained for one more week before fleeing. That same week, the Gestapo sought to arrest her.  Thankfully, the Sharps were already on their way back to the United States.

Deeply affected by the injustices that they had witnessed, the Sharps decided to return to the beleaguered continent to help more people escape. Initially, they wished to work from France, but the French quickly surrendered to Hitler and the French Vichy government allied itself with the Nazis. Instead, the Sharps established themselves in Lisbon, Portugal. From there they were able to help thousands of refugees escape -- Jews, political dissidents, and others. Martha was particularly eager to help children and, in one of her better known missions, managed to gather all of the necessary documents for 29 children and 10 adults to leave Vichy, France.

The Sharps worked closely with Varian Fry, an American journalist in Marseilles and the other American honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Fry is credited with the rescue of some 2,000 people. He was particularly involved in rescuing artists, writers and academics. Among those saved by Fry and the Sharps were Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Lion Feuchtwanger. Fry was expelled from France in September 1941. He passed away in 1967.

After the war, the Sharps divorced but both remained social activists. Waitstill passed away in 1984, Martha in 1999.

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