Lesson
Duration:
1 class period

The Sharps’ Dilemmas

Essential Questions

What shapes our decision making when we have to choose between personal responsibilities and commitments to people, groups, or causes beyond our immediate circle?

Overview

In February 1939, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, an American Unitarian minister and his wife, left the safety of their home and family to rescue refugees in Europe on the brink of World War II. This lesson introduces the Sharps and invites students to investigate the choices they made and the risks they took to help strangers. Students begin with a journal entry to prompt reflection on their own decision-making. Then they use a short video and companion readings, including primary sources, to learn more about the Sharps and to create historical character maps. Finally, students discuss the relationship between identity and decision-making in the Sharps’ lives and in their own.

Learning Goals

  • Student will examine the relationship between personal identity, decision making, and responsibility
  • Students will describe the dilemmas faced by Martha and Waitstill Sharp when they were asked to undertake rescue and relief work on the verge of World War II, and understand how the Sharps’ personal identities shaped their responses to those dilemmas and their choice to be upstanders
  • Student will reflect on how individuals define their sense of responsibility toward others

Context

 

The film Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War chronicles the extraordinary choices of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, an American couple who undertook dangerous relief and rescue work in Czechoslovakia and France in 1939 and 1940. Initially, they were invited to go to Prague, where Nazi aggression had triggered a crisis. German takeovers of Austria and the Sudetenland, the violence of Kristallnacht, and the escalating efforts to deny rights, employment, and education to Jews in Germany had precipitated a crisis, sending thousands of refugees to the Czech capital, as well as other cities outside Germany’s grasp. World powers had failed to find a solution at the Evian conference, and most countries, including the United States, did not want to accept Jewish refugees from Europe. Meanwhile, desperate refugees lacked housing, work, and adequate food; and many feared arrest and detention by the Nazis.

Despite an isolationist mood and official policies that often discouraged involvement, individual Americans felt a sense of responsibility toward European refugees and found a way to act on their behalf. The Unitarian church—a liberal religion with roots in Christianity—had links to Czechoslovakia and wanted to offer assistance. Unitarian leadership sought volunteers to head an effort to aid refugees in Prague. Seventeen couples turned down the post, but the eighteenth choice—minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, from Wellesley, Massachusetts—accepted.

Materials

Activities

  1. Respond to Journal Prompt

    Ask students to respond to the following questions in a short personal journal entry. Explain that while they won’t be asked to share this writing with peers, their reflection will inform the conversation that follows.

    • Have you ever wanted to take action against injustice?

    • What factors did you weigh before taking action?

    • If you didn't act, what stopped you from acting? If you did, what propelled you to move from thought to action?
  2. Introduce the Sharps

    Ask students to use the 3-2-1 teaching strategy to take notes as they watch the Defying the Nazis Trailer. In their notes, students should capture the following:

    Give students a few moments to share their 3-2-1 responses with a partner. Then reconvene the class and record some of the students’ questions on the board. There will likely be both factual questions (“What exactly did the Sharps do in Europe?”) and reflective ones (“Why would they leave their own children behind to do something that seems so dangerous?”).

    • Three facts about Martha and Waitstill Sharp
    • Two questions they have about the Sharps
    • One image or quotation from the film trailer
  3. Use Primary and Secondary sources to Create Character Maps

    Read the text Two Who Dared together with students, perhaps using the Read Aloud teaching strategy. Then refer back to the factual questions students shared after watching the film trailer. Does this reading answer any of their initial questions about the Sharps?

    Be sure that students now understand the basic facts of the story: In February 1939, the Sharps left their young children and Unitarian parish in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to aid refugees from Nazism in Czechoslovakia. German troops occupied the entire country shortly after the Sharps’ arrival, but the couple remained for seven months, leaving only when threatened with arrest by the Gestapo. Just a few months after the Sharps’ return to Wellesley, they went back to Europe and spent a year helping refugees escape from war-torn France.

    Why did the Sharps accept this dangerous mission? Students will have a chance to explore some of their reflective questions about identity and decision making in more depth as they create historical character maps for the Sharps. Arrange students in pairs and give them two brief primary sources: an excerpt from Martha’s memoir, titled Church Mouse to the White House, and the audio clip, The Mission’s Beginning, in which Waitstill describes the start of their relief work. These will provide additional material for students’ character maps. Each student can read or listen to one of these sources.

    Give students the Historical Character Map handout. A character map is a graphic organizer that uses a simple drawing of a person, with questions connected to its symbolic features, to prompt reflection on a historical or fictional character. Here, students should choose to focus on either Martha or Waitstill and use information from the film trailer, audio recording, and readings to answer the questions provided in the handout.

    After completing their historical character maps, students can post them in the classroom and participate in a brief gallery walk to view what their classmates created.

  4. Discuss Identity and Decision-making

    Discuss some of the following questions with students:

    • What dilemmas did Martha and Waitstill face in deciding whether to undertake relief work in Europe? What factors did they weigh in making their choice? What propelled them from thought to action? What risks did they take?
    • How did the Sharps’ identity, character, and beliefs influence their choice to be upstanders? Did circumstances and opportunity also play a role?
    • Writing about empathy and responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed, “[Eighteenth-century philosopher] David Hume noted that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society, and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them.”1 Is this true of Martha and Waitstill Sharp? How did they understand their responsibility toward others?
    • Think back to the journal entry you wrote at the beginning of class. Does our exploration of Martha and Waitstill’s story add to your thinking about how people make decisions to stand up to injustice? Does such an unusual story have any implications for how we think about the choices we face in our daily lives? (You could use these final questions as a closing journal prompt, as well.)
  1. Citations

    • 1 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), 30.

Extensions

  1. In addition to the documents used in this lesson, we feature a larger selection of sources in our Get to Know the Sharps section from the Sharps’ archive. These documents invite students to do the real work of historians: reading closely, understanding, analyzing, applying knowledge of context, and synthesizing different types of evidence to piece together historical events and develop a perspective on their meaning and significance. Teachers can assign these additional sources as homework or give in-class research time, allowing students to create fuller, more detailed character maps and to inform their responses to the discussion questions in the lesson.
  2. The question of why some people, like Martha and Waitstill Sharp, chose to defy Nazi laws and risk their own safety to help others has fascinated scholars of World War II and students of human behavior. There are thousands of stories of rescue, each different from the next. Those stories raise important questions, including: What motivated rescuers? Is each rescuer unique, or are there certain qualities that many rescuers share? How can studying the choices of rescuers inform our own thinking and actions today? Understanding Rescue: What Scholars Say is a collection of short writings and videos featuring the insights of historians, psychologists, and others on these questions. As they browse these sources, students can consider how these different perspectives add to their thinking about the Sharps, about empathy and responsibility, and about the factors that shape decision making and human behavior.

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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