Sunday, September 3, 2017
Book Review: 'Defying the Nazis' by Artemis Joukowsky
In 1939, Waitstill and Martha Sharp left their comfortable life behind in Wellesley, Massachusetts in order to undertake a mission of mercy in Czechoslovakia as representatives of their Unitarian church. Waitsill was a respected minister who traveled to Prague before the occupation, when refugees were flooding in to escape the Germans. "Defying the Nazis—The Sharp's War," with an introduction by Ken Burns (who co-directed a film about this couple along with the Sharp's grandson, Artemis Joukowsky) recounts the Sharps' initiation into a dangerous world of high-stakes negotiation, subterfuge, and chutzpah. Thanks to this couple's courageous actions, adults (the exact number is not known) who might have perished obtained exit visas; children escaped from Europe to America; and people in desperate need received food and financial support.
What price did the Sharps pay for their altruism? They spent many months away from their young son, Hastings, and daughter, Martha Content, who missed their parents terribly. In addition, the Sharps exhausted themselves navigating insane and chaotic bureaucracies while trying to evade the Gestapo's intense surveillance. Alas, their work was never done; there was always someone else clamoring for help. The Sharps bent and broke laws when necessary, improvised when their plans went awry, and refused to give up, even when daunting obstacles threatened to derail their mission.
Artemis Joukowsky pays tribute to his grandfather and grandmother in thirty-seven relatively brief chapters. Basing his information on primary sources, the author traces the path that took Waitsill and Martha from America to a continent under siege. The author describes many occasions when, either together or separately, the Sharps scrambled to turn impossible situations around and rescue Jews, intellectuals, artists, dissenters, and others on the Nazis' hit list. Although the writing is sometimes choppy and inelegant, the Sharps' story is impressive, poignant, and meaningful. This valiant couple, for reasons of conscience, refused to look away—as so many of their compatriots did—while innocent human beings suffered under oppressive and unjust laws, experienced hunger and privation, and lived in terror of imminent execution.
Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.