Despite an isolationist mood in the United States and official policies that discouraged Americans from getting involved in the refugee crisis after Kristallnacht, some individual Americans felt a sense of responsibility toward European refugees and found ways to act on their behalf. For Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife living in Wellesley, Massachusetts, that sense of responsibility began in their religious community and ultimately drew them into dangerous missions in Europe on the edge of war.
One quiet Sunday evening in January 1939, the Sharps received a phone call that would change their lives. American Unitarians—members of a liberal, free-thinking faith with roots in Christianity—had been following the refugee crisis in Czechoslovakia, where there was a large Unitarian community. Church leader Everett Baker was now calling to ask the Sharps to travel to Prague and lead an emergency relief mission that he described as “the first intervention against evil undertaken by the denomination.”
This work included assessing the crisis—there were already an estimated 250,000 refugees who had fled the German Reich for the Czech capital—providing food, shelter, and support, and ultimately helping hundreds of Czech citizens as well as refugees to get out of Europe. The vulnerable included not only Jews but also communists, dissidents, cultural figures, and Czech political leaders who were opposed to Nazism. Baker had already approached 17 other couples, and all had refused his request.
Waitstill immediately wanted to say yes. He had been preaching against the evils of Nazism for years and saw Baker’s request as an opportunity to take concrete action. Martha wasn’t so sure. They had two children, only three and eight years old, and Martha was reluctant to leave them behind. She later recalled, “I was torn between my love and duty to my children and to my husband.”
When a good friend offered to take care of the children, Martha agreed to the mission.
The Sharps arrived in Prague in February 1939 with thousands of dollars donated by American Unitarians in hand and the promise of more to come. Just a few weeks later, German troops marched into the city and took control of the entire country, creating new waves of fear among refugees who had already fled the Reich once and thought they would be safe in the Czech capital. In an atmosphere of danger and violence, the Sharps spent seven months aiding refugees. Waitstill wrote to the congregation in Wellesley, “Our last sight as we sailed down the [New York] Harbor is still very vivid in our minds, a great lighted statue—a monument to an ideal—towering into the night. We live and work very much in its shadow.”
What began as an operation to distribute food to and provide medical care for refugees soon turned into a rescue mission. The Sharps helped refugees escape from the country by arranging connections with employers and sponsors abroad, by compiling the complicated files of documents necessary for emigration, and by carefully attending to the tedious but essential job of timing visas to coordinate with ship and train tickets. Several times, Martha accompanied groups of refugees as they fled Czechoslovakia, her American passport and government connections providing a measure of cover at dangerous border crossings. Waitstill began a complex money-laundering scheme to evade Nazi restrictions on bringing currency into or out of the country. He devised a system that allowed refugees to leave their Czech savings with him in Prague, where the money was used for relief efforts; meanwhile, an equivalent amount of American aid money deposited in London, Paris, and other free European cities would be available to the refugees if they succeeded in escaping. Waitstill gave the poorest refugees the best rate of exchange. He later said, “I knew it was illegal, but I did it because I had no other choice. I was beyond the pale of civilization. I owed no ethics to anybody. I owed no honesty to anybody at all if I could save imperiled human lives.”
The Sharps were constantly followed by Nazi police and had to learn how to avoid wiretapped telephones, use codes for important documents, and evade Gestapo patrols. Their offices were ransacked, and they faced arrest when the Nazis ordered all refugee aid and assistance to stop. Despite these increasing dangers, the Sharps remained in Prague until August 1939, when they heard a rumor that they were to be arrested the very next day. Arrest would certainly mean indefinite detention within a brutal system that allowed foreigners no rights; it could also mean violence or even death. The Sharps decided to leave Prague, and World War II officially began while they were sailing to New York. Martha later recalled that after returning home, “We were back in another world. Love, children’s arms, plentiful food, and the only thing that concerned Americans that September seemed to be which team would win the World Series.”
Martha and Waitstill stayed in Wellesley with their children for several months before accepting another mission from the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee. They spent most of 1940 working in war-torn France, where they helped intellectuals, Jews, and others who were at risk flee the country and provided aid to still more refugees. For their work in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and France, the Sharps have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem—the highest recognition accorded by the state of Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. They are two of only five Americans to be so honored.
What questions did the Sharps face in deciding whether to do relief work in Europe? How do you account for the choices they made?
How did being American shape the Sharps’ choices and the opportunities they had to help? Why do you think their universe of obligation differed from that of so many other Americans?
- What shapes our decision making when we have to choose between personal responsibilities and commitments to people, groups, or causes beyond our immediate circle? Has there been a time in your life when your role as a family member or friend has been in conflict with your obligations and responsibilities to your community or the world at large? Describe the situation, the choices you made, and the reasons you made them.