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Martha and Waitstill Sharp
Adapted with permission from UU World, Summer 2006, "Righteous among the nations: Israel honors two Unitarians for heroism in World War II" by Michelle Bates Deakin, UU World contributing editor and author of Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love.
Read or tell the story.
This is the story of how a boy found out that his Unitarian Universalist grandmother and grandfather were heroes. As an eighth grader in New York City, a boy named Artemis Joukowsky III chose his grandmother to interview for a school assignment. His grandmother was named Martha Sharp.
Telling his grandparents' story is a way to pass along the question that Martha Sharp posed to Artemis throughout his life: What are you going to do that is important in your life?
On a snowy night in Prague in 1939, Martha Sharp jumped from a taxi, darted around a corner, and flattened herself into a doorway. The heels of a pursuing Gestapo agent clicked past her. She entered an unlit apartment building, dashed up five flights of stairs, and rang the bell of a known anti-Nazi leader.
Six weeks earlier Martha and her husband, the Rev. Waitstill Sharp had left their young children safely behind in the United States so they could volunteer for a relief effort in Czechoslovakia, sponsored by the American Unitarian Association. Then one night in 1939, the Nazi army marched into Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and occupied the city. The helping mission of the Sharps instantly changed into a treacherous, cloak-and-dagger mission.
That March night a woman opened the apartment door to Martha, denying she had even heard of the man Martha was asking for. "I begged," Martha recounted the story later to a biographer. "I told her there was little time. I produced my American passport. When she saw it, she said in Czech, 'A moment,' and then snatched my passport from me and shut the door in my face." For the next few minutes Martha frantically worried whether she'd see her passport again. Her passport was her only ticket to safety.
But the door did open, and this time a man stood before her. Martha asked if he was "Mr. X," as Martha later referred to him when she told the story. He said he could give Mr. X a message. She explained she had been charged by a group of British and American refugee workers with transporting him to the British Embassy so he could be smuggled from the country. The man asked her to wait a moment, then disappeared into the apartment. He opened the door again, wearing an overcoat. He handed Martha her passport and said, "I am Mr. X."
Together, they walked through wind and snow across the city. A Nazi soldier stopped them when they reached a bridge over the Vltava River. Martha produced her passport and confidently announced, "Americans!" They were waved across the bridge, then stopped by another soldier on the other side. The passport trick worked again.
Just steps outside the British embassy, a third Gestapo officer stopped them. Martha began to loudly complain about the lack of taxis and her frustration at being late for a meeting with the embassy secretary. She flashed her passport and demanded the guard tell the secretary, "Mr. and Mrs. Sharp are here." He waved them ahead to speak with a British guard, and Martha and Mr. X walked into the embassy to safety. Martha then returned to her apartment, where Waitstill was returning from a similar mission. They watched out their window as Nazi soldiers looted Prague stores and warehouses.
The rescue of Mr. X is one of hundreds that the couple orchestrated, helping Jews and non-Jews, intellectuals, political leaders, writers, artists, and children flee to safety from the Nazis. Yet the heroism of Martha and Waitstill Sharp is just beginning to be recognized.
The story of the Sharps' courage illuminates some of the dilemmas that perplex people who care about social justice. How many of us want to help but are afraid or don't know how?
Taking a courageous stand does not require sacrifices and heroics on the scale of the Sharps. "It is easy to feel small in comparison to Waitstill and Martha Sharp," says the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz. "Not every one of us can set out for war-torn Europe. But every one of us can [help] those who do."
In sharing his grandparents’ experience, Artemis Joukowsky wanted their story to inspire others, not overwhelm them. "Life is made of righteous moments, not grandiose moments," he says, "making choices where you reflect on how you treat everyone in your life. The key part about my grandparents wasn't just one big moment. They made thousands of little choices that led up to the story that we now tell."
Artemis remembers his grandmother — Martha Sharp — asking him: "What are you going to do that is important in your life?" Even now that he is grown up, married, and a father of three children, he still hears her words.
As a child, Artemis Joukowsky always answered the same way: "I'm going to overcome my disease," referring to his lifelong battle with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive illness. Today he has become an advocate for disability rights and is the author of Raising the Bar: New Horizons in Disability Sports.
Telling his grandparents' story is a way to pass along to you, a new generation, the question that Martha Sharp asked him: What are you going to do that is important in your life?