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