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Church celebrates members' World War II heroism

At celebration of Unitarians who saved refugees from Nazism, a challenge: Who will help the victims of genocide in Darfur?
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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Charlie Clements, Rosemarie Feigl, and William G. Sinkford

Rosemarie Feigl, one of the children rescued from the Nazis by Martha Sharp, is flanked by UU Service Committee president Charlie Clements (left) and UUA president William G. Sinkford at the December 12 ceremony to honor the Sharps. (Photo by Deborah Weiner, UUA.org) (Deborah Weiner, UUA.org)

The ceremony honoring Martha and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills on December 12 was equal parts a celebration of their efforts to save Jews and others during the Holocaust and a call to action against today’s genocide in Darfur.

In June, the Sharps will be awarded the posthumous designation "Righteous Among the Nations" in Israel by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. This week in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the Sharps' heroic feats in rescuing children, Jews, and dissidents from the Nazis between 1939 and 1945 were honored by their grandson, one of the children they rescued, and by leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Jewish Community Relations Council, among others. Along with praise for the Sharps' daring and dangerous work was the continual question: Who are the Sharps among us today? What are we doing to stop the genocide underway in Darfur, Sudan?

The Rev. Waitstill Sharp was minister of the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Church in 1939, when he and his wife Martha answered the call from the American Unitarian Association to go to Czechoslovakia to provide relief for refugees fleeing the Nazis. In 1940, the Sharps were also among the five founding members of the Unitarian Service Committee, a humanitarian aid organization that continues today as the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

At this week's ceremony honoring the Sharps, the Rev. Dr. William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, underscored the prescience of the Sharps' actions in anticipating the need for refugee assistance in Europe in 1939. They went to Europe in February 1939, Schulz noted. That was less than three months after Kristallnacht; before the Nazis required Jews to relinquish their silver and gold; before Germany attacked Poland; before the Nazis opened the death camp at Auschwitz. "The Sharps went to Europe before the rest of the world awoke to the full extent of the peril of the Nazis," Schulz said.

"It's easy to feel small in comparison to Martha and Waitstill Sharp," Schulz said. "The fact that they went meant that anyone else could have done it."

Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, echoed the theme. "The story of the Sharps is not the story of presidents or dignitaries or superheroes," she said. Waitstill was a 37-year-old minister; his wife, 34, was trained as a social worker and was raising their two young children. In the wake of the Holocaust, Kaufman said, we continually ask, "How could the world have stood by and done nothing?" The legacy of the Sharps, she said, "is one of people who saw the need to act and did."

The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president UUA, who recently returned from a tour of the Darfur refugee camps in Chad with Charlie Clements, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, acknowledged that much has changed in the world since the Sharps answered their call to action in Europe. But much—such as genocide—has not. "The question for Unitarian Universalists," Sinkford said, "is how will we respond today to those things which have not changed? Will we be able to find the spiritual health and depth to respond?" Holding his hands out before him, Sinkford said, "These are the only hands on earth that can move the blessed community. Will we answer the call?"

Seventy-year-old Rosemarie Feigl spoke of how Martha Sharp answered her call. "My name is Rosemarie Feigl, and Martha Sharp saved my life," she began. Feigl was born in 1926 in Vienna. After the Nazis began pursing her father, her Jewish family fled Austria to Italy and then France. Desperate to leave Europe, Feigl's father met the Sharps as he was trying to obtain exit visas for his family. Martha Sharp first helped 13-year-old Rosemarie—along with 26 other children—board a ship in Lisbon bound for America. A year and a half later, Martha helped Feigl's parents emigrate to America, too. "Her motivation was entirely humane," Feigl said. "She did it just to be a good human being."

The Sharps will be only the second and third Americans to receive this honor from Yad Vashem. The first was Varian Fry, who worked for the Emergency Rescue Committee in France and assisted in the escape of over 1,000 people, including Hanna Arendt and Marc Chagall.

The Sharps' grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III, was instrumental in reconstructing the Sharps' story and presenting it to Yad Vashem for recognition. He imagined how his grandparents might have felt at being so lauded. "They would be very embarrassed by this," Joukowsky said. "They were New England Yankees, modest people. My grandparents were unlikely heroes."

His grandparents would be heartened, said Joukowsky, by their legacy in the UUSC, and by the UUSC's continued work to advance human rights and social justice around the world. In concluding his comments Joukowsky said: "Let us ask ourselves: Who are the righteous among the nations today? Who will take the risk of speaking out?"

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