published Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Unitarian Church to screen couple's heroics

Martha and Waitstill Sharp, from left, wave to friends and family members as they leave the United States to help refugees during World War II.
Martha and Waitstill Sharp, from left, wave to friends and family members as they leave the United States to help refugees during World War II.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

* What: "Two Who Dared: The Sharps' War."

* When: 7 p.m. Friday.

* Where: Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, 3224 Navajo Drive.

* Admission: Free.

* Phone: 423-624-2985.

Young Artemis Joukowsky III was floored to find out his grandparents were heroes, but nobody knew it.

"When [I learned] in ninth grade," he says, having heard the story from his parents, "it changed my life to know [their exploits] existed."

Now, years later, Joukowsky is telling the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who helped individuals and families escape from Nazis, first in Czechoslovakia and later in occupied France.

"Two Who Dared: The Sharps' War," the story of the couple produced by their grandson and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Justus, will be screened Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga. The public is invited to the screening, the first one for the film in Tennessee.

"I feel the film is dramatic," says Joukowsky, "but it's also a passionate love story. When I was writing the screenplay for the dramatic version of the film, I realized it was timeless and compelling like 'Casablanca.' It was romantic and romanticizes what was hard."

He hopes the film will depict his grandparents not as "superheroes" but will "inspire a new generation of Martha and Waitstill Sharps."

The Rev. Pamela Rumancik, interim minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, says church board member Nicky Ozbek brought the film to the congregation's attention. She says she was not familiar with the Sharps' story but was aware that Unitarian Church members and members of the Unitarian Service Committee helped rescue people who were under the thumb of Nazi Germany.

Having previewed the film, she describes it as "very uplifting. It's remarkable how [the Sharps] struggled as a family but were able to make these decisions and saved so many people."

In January 1939, Joukowsky's grandparents were living in Wellesley, Mass., where Waitstill led the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Society and was a rising star in the Unitarian Church.

That month, he received a call from church leader Everett Baker, asking that he and his wife travel to assist the large Unitarian community in Czechoslovakia on an emergency relief mission. The work would include assessing the country's refugee crisis, as thousands flooded in from Austria, which had been invaded almost a year earlier by Germany.

The Sharps were the 18th couple approached by Baker, but the first to accept his offer.

They spent seven months facilitating escapes from Austria by helping people connect with employers and sponsors abroad, compiling elaborate files of documents necessary for emigration and even accompanying refugees as they fled Czechoslovakia. Hounded regularly by Nazi police, their offices ransacked and the two of them facing arrest, the Sharps left only when they heard a rumor they were to be arrested the next day.

Despite the harrowing aspects of the mission, after a brief return to Wellesley they accepted another job from the Unitarian Service Committee and spent most of 1940 working in war-torn France, where they helped intellectuals, Jews and other at-risk individuals flee.

"They were demanded by the church to go back, told they [had] to do it," says Joukowsky, who lives in Boston. "They did not want to go. They knew the risks."

Years later, because of their actions in saving Jews, the Sharps were posthumously named "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum. They are two of only three Americans -- of the 25,000 honored -- to be so named.

Although books and films in recent years have detailed stories of people who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, the Sharps' story is profound, according to their grandson.

"There is no mother-father [twosome] in Yad Vashem," he says. "All other rescuers had their unique aspects. But the honor given by Jews of the state of Israel to non-Jews -- that is a remarkable thing."

One reason Joukowsky says he didn't know about his grandparents' history is that he lived in Italy, Lebanon and Hong Kong growing up, while they -- divorced by 1950 -- lived in New York. Yet, even in later years, "no one knew. They never told anyone."

Waitstill Sharp died in 1983, and Martha Sharp died in 1999, and it was after her death that Joukowsky began to explore making a film. Between 1999 and 2005, he says, he documented what they had done with the help of a private detective.

"Most researchers had never heard of them. It was a tale of discovery over a long period of time."

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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