Arts & Culture

PBS documentary highlights couple’s bravery in WWII

Story of Brown alum and husband who saved hundreds from Nazis in Europe inspires film

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2016

Driven by Artemis Joukowsky III’s  decades of zealous research, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” tells a story of compassionate heroism. Told in the familiar style of two-time Oscar nominee Ken Burns, the film focuses on Joukowsky’s grandparents’ intervention in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The film also happens to boast abundant connections to Brown. Also, an exhibition, “A Hymn for the Brave: the Sharps and Humanitarian Work in World War II,” will soon be on display in the John Hay Library. A screening of the film will be shown at the exhibition’s opening reception Sept. 20, and PBS will air the film that day.

Joukowsky’s father, Artemis Joukowsky II ’55 LLD’85 P’87 GP’13 GP’14 GP’17, served as Chancellor of the University from 1997 to 1998, while his mother, Martha Joukowsky ’58 PhB’82 LHD’85 P’87 GP’13 GP’14 GP’17, is professor emerita of old world archaeology and art and anthropology. Together, they founded Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World.

Martha Joukowsky was just two years old when her parents, Martha Sharp ’26 P’58 GP’87 and Waitstill Sharp P’58 GP’87 — the director’s grandparents — were called upon by the Unitarian Church to help Czechoslovakian refugees escape the tightening grip of the Third Reich.

They were the 18th couple to be asked by the church to abandon their careers and families, but they were the first to accept. Once in Prague, the Sharps organized help for hundreds of people — including political dissidents — using whatever means were available.

After returning to their children, the Sharps went to Europe once again to help refugees escape France.

The film draws from the interviews that Joukowsky conducted with his relatives, the children of refugees the Sharps helped and correspondence from the Sharps. Tom Hanks narrates these letters, which have been donated to Brown, as the voice of Waitstill Sharp. Marina Goldman reads the letters of Martha Sharp. 

Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish novelist at the top of the Gestapo’s hit list, was one of the refugees Waitstill Sharp guided from France across the Spanish border. After boarding a ship in Portugal bound for New York City, Feuchtwanger asked Sharp why he was risking his life for people thousands of miles from his home.

“I’m not a saint,” Waitstill Sharp answered. “I’m capable of any of the many sins of human nature. … I do what I do without any piety at all.”

Feuchtwanger, surprised, asked, “You get enough reward out of that?”

“Yes, I do,” Sharp replied.

Together with the touching interviews of refugees saved and aided by the Sharps, the movie’s narration spins a dramatic story that is, as Martha Joukowsky points out, very relevant today.

“Particularly with the refugee crisis we have,” she said, the film “has relevance because my parents took righteous action.”

Producer of the film, Matthew Justus, echoed the sentiment, seeing a strong correlation between today’s refugee crisis and the one in which the Sharps intervened.

“I think it starts with interest. … Before a problem can be solved, you have to shed light on it,” he said.