'Defying the Nazis' Explores Heroism During a Refugee Crisis

Under the threat of persecution and death, floods of refugees try and escape their homeland. But where can they find safety? And will the newcomers be welcomed?

These questions are at the forefront of a global crisis, as refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged countries flee destruction. But the issue of how to help desperate refugees also resonates through "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War," a new 90-minute documentary co-directed by Ken Burns and Artemis A.W. Joukowsky III, which premieres Tuesday, Sept. 20 on PBS.

In framing this material, Burns, as in his recent films on Jackie Robinson and the Roosevelts, shows a keen awareness of how issues from history recur in contemporary life.

"Defying the Nazis" tells the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a married couple whose Unitarian faith led them to spend two years working to help Jews and other refugees escape Europe on the eve of World War II, as the Nazis were seizing power and territory.

Joukowsky is the grandson of the Sharps, and had been working on a documentary about them for years, when his friend Burns became involved and helped shape the storytelling.

Talking about the film at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, Burns addressed parallels between the Sharps' story and today's refugee crisis.

"The number of refugees now is second only to the number of refugees in the second World War," Burns said. "This is a huge crisis."

But, as Burns added, his films don't insist we see echoes of the past in the present, whatever the subject. "My argument is that you can, in a film about Vietnam," Burns said, "without even mentioning the words, be thinking about Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or all of these things."

Burns went on to quote author William Faulkner who, as Burns remarked, said "History is not 'was,' but 'is.' So if you engage the past well, you are permitted an access or at least a perspective on (the) present moment. And I hope that the film, among many, many things, raises questions about issues that we're dealing with today."

"Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War" begins by establishing that Waitstill and Martha Sharp were a couple who were very much in love. But their life raising their children in Wellesley, Massachusetts paused when Waitstill, a Unitarian minister, received a request from the vice president of the American Unitarian Association to travel to Europe and help victims of Nazi persecution escape.

Waitstill didn't want to go without Martha by his side. So, even though she was reluctant to leave their children, Martha joined her husband in 1939 as they traveled to Czechoslovakia to help Jews and others in peril flee Europe and the Nazi threat.

The Sharps spent nearly two years in Europe, and through journals and letters (Tom Hanks gives voice to Waitstill, and Marina Goldman reads Martha's words) we understand how devoted they were to their mission, even though it put them in danger and kept them away from home.

The film includes newsreel footage of the time, including images of some of the refugees who were able to come to America thanks to efforts from the Sharps and the Unitarian Service Committee.

Among those are the Diamant triplets, three sisters born in Vienna in 1927, who were able to leave Austria as Nazis influence spread across Europe.

The sisters and their parents arrived in Portland in 1941, where their father began a dentistry practice and their mother was a violinist and artist.

Reached by phone at her home in Portland, Amelie Diamant-Holmstrom says she's seen "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War" several times already.

"I think it's great," says Diamant-Holmstrom, who, with her sisters, graduated from Grant High School in 1944, and who later taught at the school.

"It's great that we make people aware of the truth that there was a Holocaust, and now they need to take action, and learn from the past," Diamant-Holmstrom says. "I'm grateful to the Sharps for bringing me here."

The film makes it clear how much courage it took for the Sharps to pursue their mission. But it's more complex than that. The Sharps' actions made them heroes, but there was a price, specifically in the abandonment felt by the two children they left behind in Massachusetts.

The pain felt by the Sharps' son and daughter (Joukowsky's mother) aren't glossed over in the documentary, which was an important element for Burns and Joukowsky.

"Children are the main victims of war," as Joukowsky said at the TV press tour this summer. "And I think we wanted to show a story from the view of children, not just my mother's story of being the child who was at home, but how those stories are similar to the children that were brought to America."

The film includes interviews with some of the refugees who were saved as children and who, like Diamant-Holmstrom, went on to lives of accomplishment.

"You realize in talking to people who have been through this crisis that they have this resilience, but they also have a need to tell the story," Jouskowsky said. "So in the making of this film, we were both inspired by what they told us in sharing their own stories, but also in weaving together the stories of children and how they have made sense of this terrible crisis in their lives."

"Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War" premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20 on PBS (10.)

-- Kristi Turnquist ___

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This article was written by Kristi Turnquist from The Oregonian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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