The Sharps’ War – History Mystery, September 2016

The Wellesley Historical Society is delighted to collaborate on this month’s History Mystery with the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills.  This post is written by UU member and history buff, Marc Shechtman. Photo courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills and shows the church c.1930

Question – September 14, 2016

In 2006, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vasehem, honored two Wellesley citizens as “Righteous Among the Nations,” an award granted to “honor non-Jews who risked their lives, liberty or position to save Jews during the Holocaust.” Of the nearly 25,000 documented heroes who have been honored since the award was established in 1963, only five Americans have been declared such heroes, and two of them are from Wellesley!  Do you know the story behind our true local heroes? Hint: watch the Ken Burns documentary about them, Defying the Nazis, on your local PBS station on September 20 and return on September 28 to find out the answer.

Answer – September 28, 2016

Waitstill and Martha Sharp were awarded the honor of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In 1939 and again in 1940, Waitstill Sharp, Minister of the Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills, and his wife Martha travelled to occupied France, Portugal, and Czechoslovakia on a relief mission that wound up smuggling dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish dissidents and refugees to England and America.

Waitstill Sharp was called to the Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills in 1936 where he and his wife brought their concerns for social justice and international peace. He had entered the ministry in 1933, eight years after graduating from Harvard Law School. Martha had been a social worker in Chicago where she worked with the poor at Hull House. Despite grave misgivings about leaving their children, 7-year-old Hastings and 2-year old Martha “without any parental supervision or befriending,” the children were looked after by family friends and parishioners who agreed to live in the parsonage on Maugus Road. The church continued to operate with an active lay ministry support team.

The couple separated in 1944 when Waitstill left the Unitarian Society of Wellesley Hills for a position in Cairo with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). Martha returned to Portugal to run the Lisbon office of the Unitarian Service Committee and helped organize Aliyah programs of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization with which she maintained close ties, becoming an international spokesman for the group. Waitstill Sharp died in 1984; Martha Sharp in 1999.

Their heroic story is told in the Ken Burns documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War (2016) and a companion book with the same name by Artemis Joukowsky, their grandson. The film will be shown on October 5, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, 309 Washington Street, Wellesley Hills, Mass. Light refreshments will begin at 6:15 P.M. Following the screening, there will be a panel discussion with Artemis Joukowsky III, co-director of the film and grandson of the Sharps; Tom Andrews, President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), the organization co-founded by the Sharps; and Catherine Chvany, one of the children rescued by the Sharps. For more information about this event, please visit Registration is requested at

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