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.
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?