Since June, countries worldwide have held 70th anniversary commemorations for the concluding events of WWII. During the last week of January, the liberation of the death camp Auschwitz was remembered, with 300 of the few remaining survivors gathered at the camp's site in Poland from whence they emerged in 1945. Europe’s rich diversity, which is embodied in these survivors, was nearly snuffed out by a murderous regime, and in the ensuing seven decades their lives grew into two and three more generations burning brightly throughout the world, a living testimony to their survival.
In The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (2003), author Martin Gilbert quoted Rabbi Mordecai Paldiel, the former head of Yad Vashem’s Righteous among the Nations, who stated that the actions of rescuers during the Holocaust overwhelmed him. “Goodness leaves us gasping," he said, "for we refuse to recognize it as a natural human attribute.” Evil—evil behavior—seems “less painfully assimilated.”
My own research specifically focuses on American rescuers of Jews and others targeted by the Nazi regime, and more generally religious groups that attempted to aid European refugees before, during, and after the war. I was left in silence when I learned that only four U.S. nationals have been inducted into Righteous among the Nations, which Yad Vashem defines as " non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust." As of last year, 25,271 from nearly 60 countries had been honored—their stories having been investigated and corroborated thoroughly.
Two of these U.S. honorees have close ties to Rhode Island. In 1938, the Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were a young, well-educated couple serving in a prominent Wellesley Unitarian church. Martha Sharp had grown up in Providence, attended First Baptist Church, graduated from Pembroke, and done social work with Chicago's Czech community. In the fall of 1938, they were approached by a consortium of aid committees, who needed individuals to go to Prague to assess and assist the Czech Unitarian community with the crushing refugee crisis building in the city. This was their overt mission. The covert mission was to locate a list of prominent German Jews and political dissidents and get them out of Europe by whatever means necessary. This group included scientists, scholars, writers, and other intelligentsia, who had received sponsorships from family or universities in the U.S.
Seventeen others had been asked to go before the Sharps accepted this mission. In early 1939, they sailed for Europe leaving their children in the care of friends from their church. Over the next two years in Prague and later in Vichy France, they brought food, clothing, and medical attention to thousands of refugees, and they rescued from Europe some 1500 to 2000 Jews, including a Kindertransport. As Mordecai Paldiel said, "goodness leaves us gasping."
I share this story because Rhode Islanders should hold close the example of Martha and Waitstill Sharp for their extraordinary moral courage. And I share it for another reason. When I began my research, I interviewed their daughter, Brown Professor Emerita Martha Sharp Joukowsky. I asked her why it took so long for their story to be told (they were not inducted until 2006). She said to me that her parents never saw themselves as the central focus of this story but instead credited their success to a whole network of people within the trans-Atlantic Unitarian community and beyond who made their work possible. I have never forgotten what their daughter said about the "network."
As the season of Epiphany comes to a close, let us remember that our ministry in the world relies on our ability to work as a network that has the possibility of shining light and goodness into a world where the shadows of human evil long to prevail.
The Rev. Nancy Hamlin Soukup is the University Multifaith Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life at Roger Williams University. She is completing a Doctorate of Ministry at Andover Newton Theological School.
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