In 1939, Martha and Waitstill Sharp spent seven months aiding refugees in Czechoslovakia. 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.