Two Americans Recognized as Righteous Gentiles

An American husband and wife who helped hundreds of refugees escape the Nazis were recognized posthumously by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem this week as Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations.

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Hillel Fendel, | updated: 13:31

The couple, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, from Boston, Massachussets, are only the second and third Americans to be so honored. A granddaughter of the couple, Martha Joukowski, represented the heroes at the ceremony in Yad Vashem. Eva Esther Feigl, one of the Jewish children saved by the Sharps, spoke in appreciation of the Sharps.

Waitstill was a minister in the Unitarian church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his wife Martha was a noted social worker. In 1939, the Sharps accepted an invitation by the Unitarian Service Committee to help Unitarians in Czechoslovakia. (Pictured above: The Sharps as they departed for Europe.)

Shortly after their arrival in Czechoslovakia, the Nazis took control of the country. The Sharps remained for a number of months, helping a number of Jews to leave - Waitstill set up an underground escape route from Prague, about which little is known to this day - until they were warned that the Gestapo had taken notice of them. A year later, they arrived in Portugal on a mission to help Jewish and non-Jewish refugees escape from war-torn France. One of their most dramatic missions there was to arrange the escape of world famous German-Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger; they personally smuggled him and his wife out of Vichy-controlled France into Barcelona, then accompanying them on a dangerous train ride to Lisbon, where the Feuchtwangers quickly boarded a ship for New York.

Martha Sharp then returned to France, where she pleaded for and finally received permits for a group of some 40 Jews and non-Jews, including 29 children, to leave the country.

Largely as a result of the Sharps' courageous efforts, the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) was established in the U.S. in May 1940. The USC, often in collaboration with other agencies, rescued between 1,000 and 3,000 people during and after the war years.

After the war, Martha Sharp helped raise funds for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, and was active in helping Jewish children reach Israel under the Youth Aliyah program. In that capacity, in 1947 she journeyed to Morocco, and in 1951, to Iraq, to coordinate clandestine emigration possibilities for Jews desirous to leave for Israel. She died in 1999; Waitstill had passed away in 1984.

In light of the risks taken by the Sharps – first of being apprehended by the French authorities for helping Lion Feuchtwanger, a fugitive from French law, to avoid arrest, coupled with the offense of bribing French border guards, and the equal risks of arrest while traveling incognito through Spain, a country leaning toward Nazi Germany, and keeping in mind the Sharps’ meritorious assistance to other Jewish fugitives of Nazi terror – Yad Vashem decided last September to confer upon them the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

The only other American to have been so honored was Varian Fry, an emissary for the US Emergency Rescue Committee, who first alerted the Sharps to Feuchtwanger's plight. He helped save thousands of endangered refugees who were caught in Vichy France escape from Nazi terror. Among those he saved were artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, writer Hannah Arendt, and sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.