To Save a Life
Today’s Washington Post has the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, “only the second and third U.S. citizens named to a [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum] honor roll of 21,000 ‘righteous’ gentiles, non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews.” The Sharps, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts and his wife, travelled to Europe twice in order to save refugees.
The American Unitarian Association asked numerous ministers to go to Europe before Waitstill, 37, and his social-worker wife, Martha, 33, agreed.
Prague was home to one of the world’s largest Unitarian congregations, which was helping refugees of all stripes — Jews, trade unionists, political dissenters.
The Sharps arrived to lend a hand in February. A month later, the city was occupied.
“Once they saw what was happening, they became obsessed with the refugees and could not bring themselves to leave,” said author Susan Subak, who is writing a book about the Unitarian rescue effort.
On March 15, 1939, the day the Germans took Prague, Martha guided an anti-Nazi leader to asylum at the British Embassy. A few days later, Waitstill arranged for a member of the Czech parliament to be smuggled out of a hospital morgue in a body bag.
The Nazis soon closed the Sharps’ office and threw their furniture into the street. But the couple stayed another five months and got out just ahead of the Gestapo.
The couple went back a second time, in 1940, to help open a conduit from France into Portugal, a neutral company through which Jews and others could esape. Their story is one of amazing heroism and personal self-sacrifice.
Much of the article, however, is devoted to the personal cost of this level of sacrifice. Both times, they left their children with others — and during the second, their daughter nearly died of pneumonia.
On the one hand, I would side with those who found it too difficult to leave their own children for months at a time. But on the other, I feel the Washington Post devotes an excessive portion of the article to discussing their childrens’ sacrifice and questioning the Sharps’ decision. It is not as if the children were separated from their parents for the entire Holocaust period, or never saw their parents again — as was almost routine for the Jews of Europe during that era.
Furthermore, it is not as if they set out to be away for such an extended period of time. Once they arrived, they found so much to be done that they could not leave.
Artemis Joukowsky says there was no single moment when they were able to make a grand moral calculation. Such equations may be possible in hindsight. But in real time, the Sharps were caught up in “a growing series of moral imperatives they could not possibly foresee,” he said.
The Sharps are heroes. They were not, by any stretch of the imagination, neglectful parents. One reason we have no heroes today is because journalists are always there to pick apart their most minor flaw, real or imagined, so that we don’t admire those people and their self-sacrifice quite so much. With this sort of focus, the Washington Post does the Sharps — and all of us — a disservice.