DEFYING MORE THAN NAZIS
Since its inception, Vad Vashem, the world Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, has designated an Avenue of the Righteous, where recognition and praise is given to thousands of non-Jews who put their own lives at risk, protecting and saving Jewish lives, as they defied Hitler. Only five Americans are among the thousands of righteous non-Jews. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife Martha are two of the five. PBS will air a documentary focusing on the heroic deeds of Waitstill and Martha Sharp next Tuesday evening, September 20th at 8:00 P.M. local time.
Yet, Defying the Nazis, the title of the documentary, belies the 20 months that Waitstill and Martha put themselves in harm’s way and risked their lives for total strangers. Waitstill and Martha Sharp did much more than defy the Nazis.
They defied complacency. Seventeen other leaders had been approached by Reverend Evrett Baker, vice president of the American Unitarian Association to help, but declined. Who could blame them? To leave a safe and secure haven to risk their lives for total strangers was asking too much. They saw their mission in life as helping Unitarians here in the United States. Waitstill and Martha Sharp saw things differently however. They saw the rhetorical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper” that Cain so smugly placed before his creator as a challenge. And they stepped up to that challenge. No one would have faulted them, had they turned their backs on that challenge as others had. But Waitstill and Martha Sharp were too busy focusing on the peril of strangers than the complacency of colleagues. Like others who dare to be different, Waitstill and Martha Sharp did not regard themselves as special.
They defied anonymity. The idea of isolationism was very real at the time. Given the fact that Americans were protected by the Atlantic, more than a few in this country questioned the wisdom of getting involved in a war that was not theirs. Waitstill and Martha Sharp saw things differently. They saw that inhumanity anywhere was a threat to inhumanity everywhere. Much like Moses seeing an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, Waitstill and Martha Sharp looked around and saw that no one prepared to do anything. Moses stepped in; so too did Waitstill and Martha Sharp.
They defied Franklin D. Roosevelt! President Roosevelt did everything in his power not to make WWII into a Jewish war. “Defeat the enemy first” was his motto. Once the enemy is defeated, we can turn our efforts towards the suffering and annihilation of the Jews. Waitstill and Martha Sharp saw things differently. Let the President focus on defeating Nazism. Our focus will be saving Jews. And save Jews they did – even though Waitstill and Martha experienced heart stopping encounters with Nazi police where they came dangerously close to being arrested. Add to this the strain on their marriage as well as the toll it took on their children who were entrusted to the care of Church members in Massachusetts and one is perhaps better equipped to understand why there are so precious few in this world who risked their lives the way Waitstill and Martha did.
Depending on the quality of the documentary as well as the way it is received by the public, P.B.S. may wish to air it again next April, as Jews throughout the world commemorate Yom HaShoah.