Hull House - Chicago - Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Martha Sharp- “We realized that we were living at the front lines against Nazism. We had never felt such an urge to act before it was too late — to serve these brave people, to help them save their world and our own.”
Martha Dickie came from a family of Baptists rooted in Providence, Rhode Island, with values that included the Roger Williams style of religious free thinking, diversity, and world service. These values ruled her soul and intellect and shaped an idealism that would take her to Nazi occupied Europe and New York City at the end of World War II.
Martha Dickie Trains at Hull House and Becomes a Social Worker
Martha graduated from Pembroke College in Brown University and then enrolled in Northwestern University’s Recreation Training School located in Hull House, the Chicago Settlement House that social worker Jane Addams founded. After Martha completed her social work program, she became the Director of Girls’ Work for the Chicago Commons Settlement House.
Martha Marries Waitstill Sharp and Becomes a Minister’s Wife
When Martha married Waitstill Hastings Sharp in 1927, she planned to continue her career, but as with many women of her generation, she followed her husband’s career footsteps instead of her own. After he graduated from Harvard Law School, Waitstill Sharp studied for the ministry and was ordained a Unitarian minister. In 1933, Waitstill accepted the pulpit of a small church in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and Martha and her two children settled into small town life.
Waitstill was the minister, but as many minister’s wives, Martha functioned as an unofficial assistant minister. She orchestrated the youth work, religious education, and women’s meetings as well as countless church suppers and practiced behind the scenes diplomacy and sympathetic listening.
Martha Sharp Works with International Peace Groups
While the Sharps lived in Meadville, Martha worked with international peace groups, because both Sharps were becoming increasingly worried about world politics. Hitler had come into power in 1933, and he and his Nazi party worked to transform Germany into a military and cultural empire. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had become president of the United States in 1933, and he and his New Deal reformers worked to pull America from the depths of Depression by its bootstraps and or shoelaces.
The domestic and world situations hadn’t improved much when the Sharps left Meadville in April 1936, to take a pastorate at the Unitarian Church of Wellesley Hills in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Hitler had won complete control of Germany and looked to Italy and Mussolini for allies and toward Czechoslovakia and Poland for conquest. Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal still worked to set America firmly back on its economic feet. Many Americans were too busy with domestic problems to care about world events.
The Sharps Work with Refugees in Prague
The Sharps cared enough about world events to leave their small children in the care of close friends and on February 4, 1939, they left New York for London, carrying both Unitarian and Czech relief funds to the tune of $41,000. After meeting with contacts in London, Martha, 33, and Waitstill, 37, arrived in Prague on February 23, 1939. They immediately began working with the U.S. consulate, Czech government officials, and leaders of Czech churches.
According to the Sharp’s calculations, they worked with about 3,500 people wanting to leave the country, including professional people, political leaders, and students. Many of them were Jewish, putting them in double jeopardy. The German Army marched into Prague on March 15, 1939, and the Sharps continued to work until August, protected by Waitstill’s role as a visiting minister.
The Gestapo Keeps the Sharps Under Surveillance
Since they had come to Czechoslovakia before March 15, 1939, the Sharps could take short trips abroad and reenter the county. Between March 15 and early August, they traveled six different times to various European contacts in various European countries. On one of these trips Martha led 35 refugees including two children, to safety in England.
The Sharp’s work with the Unitarian congregation in Prague took up much of their time and energy as well. They brought supplies of food and medicine that they hid under the church floor tiles, and held Unitarian Church suppers for German and Austrian refugees. They cared for children, and gave time and money to children’s homes and summer camps, and children’s relief projects.
Waitstill and Martha Sharp Escape the Nazis and Leave Prague
During all of their activities, the Gestapo suspected the Sharps and kept them under surveillance. Martha and Waitstill burned all of their notes and records and stopped keeping written records. On April 13, 1939, the Gestapo rifled the Sharp’s offices and while Waitstill was away outside the country, Martha came to their offices and found the furniture had been thrown out into the street. The Gestapo closed their operation down permanently on July 25, 1939. Waitstill left for a meeting in Switzerland on August 9, 1939. He had planned to return, but the Nazis wouldn’t allow him back into Czechoslovakia.
Martha left Prague on August 15, 1939, three weeks after the Nazis had closed all of the foreign refugee offices. After the war she would discover that she had left a day before the Gestapo had planned to arrest her. The Sharps left Cherbourg, France, for New York on August 30, 1939. Before they reached New York, the German army had marched into Poland, beginning World War II.
In May 1940, the president of the American Unitarian Association asked Martha and Waitstill Sharp to go to France as its ambassadors, but before they could open their office in Paris the Nazis had captured the city. Percival Brundage who was a member of the Unitarian Service Committee Board, bought air tickets to Lisbon for the Sharps, since Portugal was neutral at the time. He asked Martha to locate French children whose parents might want them to immigrate to the United States until the War ended. The Sharps reached Lisbon on June 20, 1939, and set up an office.
Martha Works to Feed Hungry Children and Find New Homes for Refugees
The Sharps discovered that a critical food shortage existed in southern France which was crowded with thousands of refugees. They worked with their contacts to provide food, clothing, and milk to the refugees.. The Sharps reached Marseilles in mid July and decided to divide responsibilities. Waitstill returned to Lisbon to set up the Unitarian rescue and relief center and Martha stayed in France to work with the refugees.
In Lisbon, Waitstill tried to arrange for more food to be sent to France, but the British had imposed a blockage immediately after Britain had declared war against Germany, and relief shipments had to be curtailed. Waitstill garnered more support from the Unitarians for his work in setting up an immigration service in Lisbon and coordinating it with the efforts of Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee. The ERC was created in 1940, with a mandate for rescuing intellectual and political leaders trapped in southern France. The ERC’s waiting list included physiologist Otto Meyerhof, writers Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Heinrich Mann and his nephew, and Gottfried Mann, son of the writer Thomas Mann.
Varian Fry consulted Waitstill Sharp and other rescue relief organizations in Lisbon about how best to rescue the refugees in France. Waitstill guided him through the bureaucracy and gave him other tips and introduced him to other connections. He agreed that the Unitarian Service Commission would be the Emergency Rescue Committee’s liaison in Lisbon, helping to maintain those who were able to get out of France and facilitating their passage to other places. This connection persisted throughout World War II.
Martha, Waitstill, and the Refugee Children Arrive in the United States
While Waitstill remained in Lisbon, Martha and her colleagues worked with children for the immigration program. The children, including nine Jewish children, needed medical certificates, vaccinations, photos, affidavits from relatives, and financial backers. The governments of four countries required complex documentation. For three months, Martha shuffled papers and dueled with bureaucrats, some uncooperative, some cruel.
In September 1940, Waitstill made another trip into France and returned to Portugal with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger. Using Martha’s ticket, Feuchtwanger sailed for New York with Waitstill on September 28, 1940. Finally, on November 26, 1940, a convoy of 29 children and 9 adults left the railroad station in Marseilles for Spain, Lisbon, and the United States. In early December, Martha sailed to New York with two children and four adult refugees. She waited at the dock to welcome the rest of them when they arrived on December 23, 1940.
Martha Continues Her Humanitarian Work in America
After she returned to America, Martha joined the Unitarian Service Committee’s Board of Directors and worked as a fundraiser. She also continued her role as Waitstill’s right hand minister until 1944, when Waitstill left Wellesley Hills Church to take a job with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.
In February 1945, Martha returned to Portugal to run the Lisbon office of the USC, after its directors abruptly resigned After her term in Lisbon,Martha visited Czechoslovakia to see how USC could help the reconstruction of the country. She continued raising funds for USC and Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization. By December, 1945, Martha had resigned from USC because she had long felt that the directors devalued her work because she was a woman.
After an unsuccessful attempt to win a seat in the United States House of Representatives, Martha turned her energies to helping Jewish refugee children. In 1943, she and two friends had founded Children to Palestine, an interfaith effort to benefit Hadassha’s Youth Aliyah, the organization that was bringing European Jewish refugee children to new homes in what was then Palestine. In January 1947, Martha accepted Hadassha’s invitation to travel to Palestine to tour Youth Aliyah settlements. She made four trips to Palestine, each one deepening her commitment to the new state, which she envisioned as a state where both Arabs and Jews shared a peaceful and fertile land.
“Righteous Among The Nations”
In 1948, Martha visited Morocco and reported on living conditions of the Jews there and in 1949, she participated in the Israeli government’s efforts to document the condition of Iraq’s Jewish population, resulting in the lifting of the Iraq’s ban on Jewish immigration.
She continued to work in Hadassha and Youth Aliyah and opened a public relations business in New York. She and Waitstill grew apart and divorced, but maintained close ties. Waitstill Sharp died in 1984 and Martha Sharp in 1999.
In June 2006, the Sharps were posthumously honored in the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations and their names were engraved in the Wall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In September 2006, they were remembered with a plague on the Rescuers Wall at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
Di Figlia, Ghanda, Roots and Visions: Fifty Years of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Cambridge: The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, 1990
Drucker, Malka and Block, Gay, Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1992
Klempner, Mark, The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage, Pilgrim Press, 2006
Meltzer, Milton, Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust, HarperCollins, 1991
Oliner, Samuel P., Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, Touchstone, 1992