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Bringing a heroic chapter from WWII to light

Family’s film details rescues by Wellesley Hills minister, wife

By Johanna Kaiser
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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The Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, were a young Wellesley couple busy raising two young children in 1939 when they received a call from the American Unitarian Association asking for help.

Nazi Germany was gaining control of parts of Czechoslovakia, and the Boston-based denomination - one half of the merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961 - was looking for a couple to lead a humanitarian effort to rescue political dissidents and Jewish refugees from Prague.

Sharp was the minister at what is now the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills. He and his wife were interested in foreign affairs, and they were the first couple to say “yes’’ to leaving their children and risking their lives after 17 other couples said “no.’’

The couple arrived in Prague less than a month before the German occupation in March 1939, and over the next two years would together work to secure food, money, shelter, and visas for hundreds of people, including many children, threatened by the Nazi regime while narrowly escaping arrest by the Gestapo themselves.

Now, 72 years later, their family is producing “Two Who Dared,’’ a documentary that tells the story of the Sharps’ often dangerous work during the rise of Nazi Germany and the beginning of World War II. The family hopes the film inspires others to take a stand against all forms of oppression, whether it’s racial discrimination or bullying in school.

“It’s not just to teach US history but to really use the Sharps’ example to say ‘How do we stop prejudice from occurring? How do we stop the domination of one person over another for whatever belief?’ ’’ said Artemis Joukowsky III, a Sherborn businessman and the Sharps’ grandson, during a recent screening of the nearly completed film at his grandfather’s church in Wellesley.

Joukowsky and his daughter Emma Blaxter, who is helping produce the film, said researching and compiling the family’s letters, memoirs, and decades-old recorded interviews to tell the story of Waitstill and Martha’s trips to Prague, Portugal, and France helped them learn about themselves and brought them closer.

“I feel like I’m fulfilling my grandparents’ request to finish the story, in a sense,’’ said Joukowsky, who did not know about their mission in Europe until he was in high school. “I think one of the most satisfying things for me is to work with my daughter, to work with my mom, and to work with, really, my whole family.’’

It’s also led them to develop a curriculum with a Brookline-based organization, Facing History and Ourselves, designed to teach the history of the Holocaust, and the importance of the Sharps’ efforts.

“As adults it’s easy to say our kids need to think about that,’’ said Blaxter. “But we all need to be introspective about what it means for us as individuals to be leaders.’’

Joukowsky often asks viewers of the film to think about what they would have done if they were faced with the same decision as the Sharps, or if they were a member of the congregation, which supported their mission and took care of their children, Hastings and Martha, who were 6 and 2 when the Sharps first traveled to Europe.

“These were two ordinary people who grew up in this community. That’s the legacy of this church. That’s the legacy of your community,’’ Joukowsky told the Wellesley Hills gathering before the recent screening.

And the community is proud of that legacy.

“We as a congregation are privileged to be part of that history, and are continually inspired by two who fought for the freedom of others at the risk of their own lives,’’ the Rev. Sara Asher, the church’s current minister, said before the screening.

The congregation is not alone in its praise for the Sharps. Martha Sharp brought 27 children to America from unoccupied France in 1940, and the few that Joukowsky could find for the documentary, with the help of a private investigator, recall the heroism of the woman they credit with saving their lives.

One of the children, Catherine Chvany, was 13 when she and her sister came to America with Sharp. She watched the rough cut of the film with the Wellesley congregation.

“What I owe Martha is my life in America. Perhaps my life itself,’’ Chvany says in the film.

She also gave credit to the family she stayed with in Wellesley when she first arrived in this country.

“These heroic people took us in. They didn’t know if our parents would ever find us,’’ she told the audience.

The Sharps divorced in 1952, as they worked separately with refugees from Europe and the Middle East, but it was their work together in Prague that remains one of their greatest achievements.

“There is no question that their partnership was what made this work,’’ Joukowsky said.

Joukowsky and Blaxter expect “Two Who Dared’’ to be completed next month.

They plan to host a screening of a nearly final version at the Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn on Dec. 11 at 4 p.m.

Johanna Kaiser can be reached at johanna.yourtown@gmail.com.

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