One 50-minute class period

Responses to the 1930s Refugee Crisis

Essential Questions

  • How do individuals, groups, and nations define and demonstrate their “universe of obligation”?
  • What shapes a nation’s response to those outside its borders?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will reflect on the ways that individuals and nations define their responsibility toward people in need
  • Student will understand and apply the concept of the “universe obligation”
  • Student will be able to describe and analyze American responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s


To dig deeper into the ethical and political dilemmas underscoring the Sharps’ story, students begin with an anticipation guide that explores complex questions of how individuals and nations respond to the needs of others. Then they learn the powerful concept of the “universe of obligation.” As they watch an excerpt from the documentary Defying the Nazis and read related primary sources, students use the notion of the universe of obligation to think critically about individual and collective American responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.


When Martha and Waitstill Sharp first went to Czechoslovakia in 1939, their goal was to provide aid to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and aggression. (For additional background information, see reading, Two Who Dared.) As Germany occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia, and later much of Europe, the Sharps’ mission expanded to encompass the rescue of vulnerable people, including political dissidents and Jews. The Sharps continued their work with refugees on a second tour of duty in France in 1940. They helped refugees acquire the necessary offers of sponsorship or employment abroad, visas, and all the complex documentation required to leave Europe. On occasion, the Sharps also accompanied groups of refugees as they fled, lending a measure of safety through their presence as Americans.

The Sharps’ emigration work was especially difficult because most nations did not want to welcome refugees. In July 1938, delegates from 32 countries met in Evian, France, to discuss how to respond to the refugee crisis. Each representative expressed regret about the current troubles of refugees, but most said that they were unable to increase their country’s immigration quotas, citing the worldwide economic depression.

Though many refugees hoped to make a new home in the United States, American immigration policy and public opinion were not welcoming. In 1939, 83% of Americans were opposed to the admission of refugees, and the State Department actively discouraged their immigration. Concern about unemployment, widespread antisemitism, and fears that refugees would spread communism or prove to be German spies motivated much of the opposition to immigration. The Sharps were among a small group of individuals and organizations that defied public opinion and national policy in their efforts to assist refugees. For more information on the responses of the United States and other countries to the Holocaust, read America and the Holocaust.



  1. Activate Thinking about Individual and National Responsibility

    Use of the Anticipation Guides teaching strategy can help students to think through opinions about provocative issues before studying them in greater depth. Select one or more of the prompts below and invite students to decide if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree, and why. Students can record their responses on a worksheet or in a journal. Ask for volunteers to share their responses to the statements—and the reasoning behind those responses—in a brief class discussion.

    • The more you have in common with someone, the more likely you are to help them.
    • A country’s first duty is to its own citizens.
    • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
  2. Introduce the “Universe of Obligation” Concept

    The statements in the anticipation guide all revolve around the question of how we understand our responsibility to others. Sociologist Helen Fein coined the term “universe of obligation” to describe how nations define their responsibility to their citizens. The universe of obligation is the circle of individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.” Nations, societies, communities, and individuals each have their own implicit universe of obligation. Those within the universe of obligation are seen as deserving of respect and protection; those outside may not be treated with the same care.

    The image of concentric circles on the universe of obligation graphic organizer offers a simple way to represent this complex concept. If we were to use this image to represent our own universe obligation, we’d place in circle 1 those people to whom we feel the greatest obligation, for whom we’d be willing to risk a great deal. Moving outward, individuals or groups for whom we feel progressively less responsible appear in circles 2 and 3. Outside the circles are those to whom we feel very little or no obligation at all.

    Students sometimes use this image to reflect on their own universe of obligation. Here, we’ll use it to capture ideas about a moment in history as we watch an excerpt from Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.

  3. View Primary and Secondary sources, and Analyze the United States’ Universe of Obligation

    Before watching the video clip A Willingness to Act, give students a copy of the Universe of Obligation handout and ask them to be attentive to what the film reveals about how the United States defined its universe of obligation in 1939. As they watch the video clip, students can take notes on the graphic organizer: Who or what did the United States place at the center of its universe of obligation, in circle 1? Which individuals or groups were included in circles 2 or 3? Who was outside the circles, excluded from America’s universe of obligation? Students can also consider how Germany, other nations, and individuals like the Sharps defined their own sense of responsibility.

    After watching the clip, give students the Evian Conference Cartoon, 1938 and the American Public Opinion Data. Ask them to consider how this information deepens their understanding of how the world responded to the Jewish refugee crisis and how the United States defined its universe of obligation.

  4. Stimulate Classroom Discussion

    Lead a class discussion, drawing on what students learned from the film and the documents. Possible questions include:

    • How does the film reflect the way Germany defined its universe of obligation in this period? How did the country see its responsibility toward Jewish inhabitants?
    • What details in the film and documents help you understand how the United States defined its universe of obligation during the refugee crisis at the beginning of World War II? What factors shaped American attitudes toward refugees?
    • What are the consequences of being on the outside of a nation’s universe of obligation?
    • How did Martha and Waitstill Sharp define their own universe of obligation? Why was it so different from that of the country as a whole? Why do you think they chose to be upstanders when many others were indifferent or unwilling to act?
    • What is the role of ethical values in the way individuals and groups respond to those in need? What is the role of practical concerns? How do you see ethical values and practical concerns shaping American responses to humanitarian crises in the world today? What other factors play a role in how we respond to the needs of others?
    • Look back at your responses to the statements in the anticipation guide. Has our discussion in this lesson confirmed, complicated, or challenged your thinking?


The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that in 2015, the most recent year for which data was available, there were 21.3 million refugees worldwide, the highest number ever recorded. Today, Europe is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. In the face of this crisis, individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working to aid refugees, even where governments have been slower to respond.  Research one of these individuals or groups to learn about their motivations, their focus, and how they are trying to help. In what ways are the efforts of these upstanders similar to or different from the work that Martha and Waitstill Sharp and the Unitarian Church did in the 1930s?

Suggested Video

Check out this episode from PBS's The American Experience that examines the role of the United States during the Holocaust.

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