In 1939 Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and Martha Sharp, a social worker, received a call from Everett Baker asking them to help Jewish refugees in the Sudetenland. 17 other people refused the call from Baker, but on February 4th 1939, they left their young children behind and headed to Prague Czechoslovakia. They made contact with the Unitarian church in Czechoslovakia and its leader Norbert Capek and learned how to destroy documents and launder money. In March 1939, Martha helped an unknown refugee called Mr. X escape Prague. Waitstill not only arranged for the Jews’ release, but also laundered money, so that they would have means when they left Czechoslovakia. The Gestapo soon learned of the Sharps’ work, and came after them, they escaped Czechoslovakia, and went to the United States on the Queen Mary, just as France and England declared war on Germany. In 1940, the Sharps were summoned back to Europe from Fredrick Elliot, President of the Unitarian Association. So again, despite Martha’s objections, they went back to Europe, this time to Portugal to rescue refugees from France. They negotiated a large shipment of powdered milk to hungry children and started to get refugees out of France. They helped Jewish writer Lion Feutwanger escape from a French concentration camp, and come to the U.S. At this point Martha stayed in France to help children of Jewish refugees. All told, the Sharps saved about 20,000 Jews from the Nazi aggression in Europe, but the time apart took a toll on their marriage. In June 2006, the nation of Israel awarded the Sharps the Righteous of the Nations, an honor only bestowed on five other Americans.
This documentary is an exhilarating yet ultimately sad story about two people who lived their religion so thoroughly that they sacrificed their comfortable suburban lives to rush headlong into a European continent heading inexorably toward war. The exhilaration comes from knowing that people still believe so faithfully in God that they are strong enough to look evil in the eye, and still do what is right. The train rides and ship rides that the couple takes with the refugees are harrowing, yet thrilling. The sadness arises from the fact that they could not find personal happiness with each other. Hollywood would have put a happy ending on this story, but real life is much more intriguing. It’s all the more heartbreaking when the viewers hear the couple’s love letters to each other. But even more riveting than the Sharps’ personal story are the interviews with the refugees that the Sharps saved. Many of them were kids at the time, and they are amazed that people with no personal stake in their future saved them from certain death. It’s a mixture of joy and sorrow watching these people speak, joy that they are alive, sorrow that man’s inhumanity to his fellow man can reach such epic proportions. I’ve seen many WW II and Nazi era stories, but this documentary proves that there are still more stories of extraordinary courage that remain to be told.
Tom Hanks adds an earnest emotional strength to this documentary that is evident from the beginning of the film. Hanks’ voice somehow suits Waitstill Sharp, upstanding, honest, earnest, heartbroken, all these qualities come through Hanks’ voice, and the documentary is better for it. Little known actress Marina Goldman stars as Martha Sharp. There are no other voiceovers in the film.
This is a typical Ken Burns documentary, still photos, voiceovers, historians, and a compelling story that cries out to be told. These are the hallmarks of a Ken Burns documentary. The film starts out with a collage of Nazi atrocities, book, burning, Kristallnacht, and Hitler speaking to rapturously cheering crowds, this collage captures the interest of the viewer immediately, and holds it. Ken Burns had help directing this movie, Artemis Joukowski, the Sharps’ grandson actually co-directed with Burns and did all the interviews with the refugees and historians. Joukowski’s involvement in the film makes the story seem more personal and the emotions more intense.
The Sharps’ War: Never dull.