This lesson delves into Martha Sharp’s project to bring refugee children from wartime France to the United States in 1940, and it invites students to consider how one person can make a difference in the lives of many. The lesson combines analysis of historical documents with emotional engagement, perspective taking, and personal reflection. It begins with a moving letter from Martha to her eight-year-old son, explaining why she chose to stay in France rather than returning home to be with her own children. Students watch an excerpt from the film that tells, in the voices of those she rescued, the story of Martha’s efforts; then they analyze historical correspondence from the Sharps’ archive to understand how Martha was able to succeed in her mission. Finally, students discuss the legacies of Martha’s work and its significance for us today.
In 1939, Martha and Waitstill Sharp spent seven months aiding refugees in Czechoslovakia. (See reading Two Who Dared.) Rumors of imminent arrest by the Gestapo forced them to go home to Massachusetts in August of that year.
Just a few months later, they were back in war-torn Europe. The leadership of the Unitarian church, which had instigated the Sharps’ first mission, now wanted them to lead the efforts of the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee in France.
Northern France, including Paris, was occupied by German forces, while the southern region remained autonomous but was governed by French leaders who collaborated with Nazi authorities. The French government sent Jews to grim internment camps, where they were imprisoned until they were deported to Nazi concentration and death camps. Martha and Waitstill set up an office in the unoccupied south and resumed their relief work. They provided food and medical assistance and helped refugees gather the documents and resources necessary to leave France. On several occasions, Waitstill personally escorted refugees to safety on secret mountain paths through the Pyrenees.
Waitstill left Europe on such a mission in September 1940. Martha, however, chose to stay behind. She wanted to assemble a group of children who could emigrate legally to the United States and bring them with her when she sailed. Martha had initially planned to bring French children to the United States simply to escape wartime privations, but the French government refused to allow it.
She was, however, given permission to help the children of foreign and stateless refugees to emigrate. Martha’s mission ultimately resulted in the rescue of 27 children from France. Nine of these children were Jewish. Others were children of political dissidents whose parents feared for their safety. A few were sent to the United States to escape the bombings and food shortages that affected nearly every person in war-torn France. The youngest of the children was only three years old, and the oldest 16.
Together with Martha, some adult chaperones, and 67 pieces of luggage, they navigated border crossings, customs searches, and miles of bureaucratic red tape as they made their way from Marseille to Lisbon and then onto the ocean liner that brought them to Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 23, 1940.
The following two excerpted letters connected to the children’s rescue project can help students explore what allowed Martha Sharp to make such a profound difference in the lives of the 27 children.
- Read a personal letter to introduce Martha’s children’s emigration project
Give students a copy of Martha’s Letter to Hastings, written to her eight-year-old son in September 1940. (Note: The “Martha” referred to in the letter is Martha Sharp’s daughter, named “Martha Content” and sometimes called “Midgie.”) In pairs, ask students to read the letter and answer the questions below, based on the Document Analysis Template teaching strategy for historical sources.
- What type of source is this (speech, diary, letter, etc.)?
- Who is the author of this source?
- When and where was it written?
- Who is the intended audience of the source? What do the tone and language of this letter reveal about the relationship between the author and the audience?
- What is the purpose of this source?
Once students have responded to these questions, lead a class discussion based on the following prompts:
- What do you think may have been going through Martha Sharp’s mind as she wrote this letter?
- What may have been on Hasting’s mind as he read it?
- Watch a film excerpt about the children’s emigration project
As students watch the ten-minute film excerpt below, they should take note of the many different choices that are part of this story—choices made by Martha Sharp, by the children, by their parents, and by others.
After watching the film, ask students to name some of these choices. What decisions seem most striking? How were the children shaped by the experience of leaving Europe to seek refuge in the United States?
- Engage with primary sources
- Martha’s friend Helen Lowrie, another American living in Europe, had been involved with efforts to aid refugees for years. In Helen’s Letter to Supporters, written in November 1940 to the Sharps’ many supporters in the United States, she describes the beginning of the children’s rescue project.
- In December 1940, Martha was in Lisbon, waiting to board a ship to the United States with the children. She wrote this letter to Helen Lowrie, describing their journey from France to Portugal.
After reading the letters, ask students to respond to this question: What attitudes, skills, and opportunities did Martha Sharp have that helped her to make a difference? (Some responses that should come up include persistence, creativity, flexibility, willingness to make personal sacrifices, attention to detail, the help of collaborators, and the assistance of the Unitarian church, which provided financial, logistical, and personal support.)
- Consider the legacies of Martha Sharp’s children’s emigration project
The following questions can help you to lead a concluding discussion about the significance of Martha Sharp’s work to rescue children.
- In the film excerpt, child refugee Clement Brown says, “[Martha] said anybody would have done that. I don’t think so. No, no, no. Only a special person would have done that, would have left their own children and gone and taken care of other children.” Why might Martha have said that “anybody would have done” what she did? Do you agree with her?
- Martha and Waitstill Sharp endured many hardships and showed tremendous resourcefulness and imagination in their work. What specific skills, habits of mind, or values can we learn from the Sharps that might enrich our everyday lives? What people, institutions, and organizations support us as we develop these ideas and values? What difference does this support make?
- Elie Wiesel once said, “Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. Often because of one story or one book or one person, we are able to make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.” 1 Why do you think Wiesel believed we should remember these stories? What stories do you know and value that could inspire you to act in a difficult time?