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Righteous Among the Nations

Adapted from "Unitarian Couple Honored for World War II Bravery," a story by Michelle Bates Deakin, first published December 12, 2005, by UU World.

What Rosemary Feigl remembers most clearly about the woman who rescued her from the Nazis is her hat. Martha Sharp wore a fancy one with a long pheasant feather. To Feigl, a 13-year-old girl with nothing but a suitcase to her name, Sharp was her elegant American savior.

Feigl, who had fled her home in Vienna with her parents in the aftermath of the devastating destruction of Kristallnacht, had a hat of her own, too. It was a beige beret. Twenty-six other children wore hats just like it as Martha Sharp lead them across war-torn Europe to Portugal, where they boarded a ship sailing to the United States in December 1940.

"Mrs. Sharp risked her safety and her life, when she didn't even know us," said Feigl. "She certainly wasn't Jewish. There was no reason for her to do it other than her strength of character."

Sixty-five years later, Martha Sharp and her husband, the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, were honored by Israel as "Righteous Among the Nations" for their strength of character and heroism in their six-year mission to rescue Jews and other refugees from Nazi persecution. Only one other American has been so honored.

For six years, the Sharps stayed a step ahead of the Gestapo in Czechoslovakia, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain as they assisted Jews, journalists, political leaders, and children in finding safety in England and the United States.

The Sharps' legacy continues in the human rights organization they helped to found: The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The UUSC helped as many as 3,000 people escape Europe. They focused on freeing political refugees who had spoken out against Nazism in Germany or Fascism in Spain.

In 1941, the Service Committee introduced the symbol of the flaming chalice, which it used as a seal in authenticating travel documents and as its logo. The flaming chalice was later embraced by Unitarian Universalists as the symbol of their religion. The UUSC continues today as an independent human rights organization and an associate member of the UUA.

Rosemary Feigl was a Jewish child with her parents, seeking refuge in Italy, then Vichy France. Feigl recalls her father coming across a network of Unitarians who were providing affidavits for asylum. And he heard about Martha Sharp, who was arranging to transport children to safety.

Feigl said goodbye to her parents in Marseilles. "I was so frightened of being alone. I had no money. I was going to a strange country and didn't speak a word of English," she recalled in a telephone interview.

One year and three months after Feigl arrived in the United States, her parents followed.

After the war, the Sharps' lives became less dangerous but continued to focus on international relief efforts. Martha continued to work for the USC and in 1943 helped found Children to Palestine, an interfaith effort to bring European Jewish refugee children to new homes in what was then Palestine. Waitstill accepted a position in Cairo with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.

In 2005, Charlie Clements, then UUSC president, said "Over the past 65 years, the legacy of the Sharps and their work during the Holocaust has informed our work and inspired us to challenge modern forms of oppression. The honor bestowed on the Sharps reinforces our commitment to challenge the inhumanity of this era."

Waitstill died in 1984. Martha died in 1999.