By Dan Clendenin
Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha enjoyed a comfortable life in quiet Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he was the minister of the Unitarian church. Then, on February 4, 1939, after seventeen other people had rejected the invitation, they left their two children (ages seven and two) behind with relatives in the church and moved to Prague to help with the emerging refugee crisis there. When they arrived at the Prague train station, the platform was crammed with weeping families fleeing the city. Three weeks later, Germany occupied the entire country. With Europe on the verge of war, they entered what one scholar called “the kingdom of hell.” What they thought would last a couple months turned into two years, during which time the Sharps helped hundreds of Jews, dissidents, and refugees escape Nazi persecution. This despite knowing that the Gestapo was monitoring their activities. In 2006, Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust) honored them as part of the “Righteous Among the Nations” (two of only five Americans to be so honored). The work took its toll, as Waitstill would later write Martha: “all our world has been different ever since.” They separated after the war and later divorced. The film maker Ken Burns took the unusual step of joining a project that was already in progress, started by the Sharps’ grandson Artemis Joukowsky. Together, they incorporate personal letters, journals, interviews with adult children that the Sharps saved, and the insights of Holocaust scholars and historians to tell the story of two ordinary people who did extraordinary things. I watched this film on Amazon Streaming.
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