Waitstill and Martha Sharp
Waitstill Sharp was a minister in the Unitarian church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his wife Martha a noted social worker. In 1939, the Sharps accepted an invitation by the Unitarian Service Committee to help members of the Unitarian church in Czechoslovakia. Arriving in Prague in February 1939, the Sharps also aided a number of Jews to leave the country, which had come under Nazi control on March 15th. The Sharps continued their charitable work until August 1939, leaving Prague when warned of their possible arrest by the Gestapo. On June 20, 1940, Waitstill and Martha Sharp landed in Lisbon, Portugal, on a mission to help refugees from war-torn France. Making their way into Vichy-controlled France, that had allied itself with the victorious Nazi Germany, they sought ways to help fugitives from Nazi terror, Jews and non-Jews alike.
They then learned that Lion Feuchtwanger, a world famous German-Jewish author of historical fiction needed to be taken out of France urgently. In 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power, Feuchtwanger had settled in France where, together with other German anti-Nazi intellectuals, he continued his literary work as well as his anti-Nazi writings. He was numbered 6th on a list of persons whose German citizenship was annulled for their anti-Nazi stance. With the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Lion Feuchtwanger was ironically interned by the French government as an “enemy national” and held first in Camp des Milles, near Aix-les-Bains, then in St. Nicholas, near Nîmes. With the defeat of France in June 1940, Feuchtwanger’s life was in danger, since under the French-German armistice agreement, the French government had undertaken to hand over to the Nazis any Germans upon request, and Feuchtwanger was one of the persons on top of the Nazi wanted list. His wife Marta tried desperately to save him, and asked Myles Standish, of the US consulate in Marseilles, to help liberate her husband from internment.
This was done, with Feuchtwanger fleeing dressed as a woman. Taken to Marseilles, it was now urgently necessary to get him out of the country, for fear that the French police, then under Vichy control, would be looking for him. Learning of Feuchtwanger’s plight from Varian Fry, an emissary for the US Emergency Rescue Committee, Waitstill and Martha Sharp took it upon themselves to organize Feuchtwanger’s escape. A new identity card was produced, where he appeared as Wetcheek (the English translation of the German Feuchtwanger). The Sharps then rented a room in Marseilles near the main train station, from where one could cross via an underground passage directly into the station and thus avoid the police control at the station’s entrance. In September 1940, Martha Sharp, dressed as a native peasant woman, accompanied Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger by train to Cerbere, on the Franco-Spanish border, where Waitstill Sharp was waiting for them. He told them that he had bribed the French border guards to allow the flight of the Feuchtwangers, but urged them to be careful, for he could not guarantee that the same guards would be on duty when the Feuchtwangers would attempt their crossing. It was decided that Marta Feuchtwanger would go first, and with the help of the cigarettes that she freely distributed to the guards, she distracted them for enough time to be allowed to pass the frontier undisturbed. As for Lion, he also crossed over successfully with the help of his false identity card under the name of Wetcheek.
The Sharps waited for them on the Spanish side, and the whole party continued on to Barcelona. The intention was to reach Lisbon, Portugal, and catch a boat sailing for New York. To get to Lisbon, the party of four first had to head to Madrid, but were afraid to use the sole airline making that route, the German (and Nazi-controlled) Lufthansa, so instead they went by train. Waitstill bought a first-class ticket for Lion, hoping that the Spanish police would be less diligent in inspecting travelers in that compartment. He also gave him a briefcase bearing the large heading “Red Cross.” Lion’s wife Marta traveled third class. Throughout the long trip to the Spanish-Portuguese border, Waitstill watched over Lion Feuchtwanger, keeping inquisitive travelers at a safe distance, so as to lessen the danger of his disclosure by the Spanish police, and the risk of his being returned to Vichy French hands. The Fascist dictatorship in Spain, headed by Franco, was at the time considering aligning itself with Nazi Germany, and would certainly not have hesitated to hand over Lion Feuchtwanger to the Nazis if they had asked for him. Arriving safely in Lisbon, also at the time a near-Fascist country headed by Salazar, the Sharps arranged for the Feuchtwangers to quickly board a ship heading for New York, and they sailed at the end of September 1940. At the time, they were assured that the US government had allowed their entry into the United States. In 1976, Marta Feuchtwanger gave a lengthy account of their escape from France with the assistance of Waitstill and Martha Sharp.
Having accomplished this, Martha Sharp returned to France, and journeyed to Vichy to plead for permits (laissez-passer) for a group of children-9 of them Jewish- to leave the country, which she eventually received. On November 26, 1940 this group left France, including the three Jewish Diamant sisters (Amalie, Evelyn and Marianne), and Eva Esther Feigl, all of whom, thanks to Martha Sharp’s efforts, were armed with US visas. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, Eva Feigl had fled with her parents in 1938, and arrived in France. Arrested as “enemy aliens,” the Feigls desperate sought ways to leave the country. Luckily for them, the Sharps were able to add Eva Esther to this group of children, and take her out of the country. Her parents stayed behind. Mrs. Feigl lives in New York, and gave testimony of her timely rescue by the Sharp couple. After the war, Martha Sharp helped raise funds for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, and was active in helping Jewish children reach Israel under the Youth Aliyah program. In that capacity, in 1947 she journeyed to Morocco, and in 1951, to Iraq, to coordinate clandestine emigration possibilities for Jews desirous to leave for Israel. She died in 1999; Waitstill had passed away in 1984.
In light of the risks taken by the Sharps – first of being apprehended by the French authorities for helping Lion Feuchtwanger, a fugitive from French law, to avoid arrest, coupled with the offense of bribing French border guards, and the equal risks of arrest while traveling incognito through Spain, a country leaning toward Nazi Germany, and keeping in mind the Sharps’ meritorious assistance to other Jewish fugitives of Nazi terror – Yad Vashem decided on September 9, 2005 to confer upon the late Waitstill and Martha Sharp the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
A medal and certificate of honor was presented to the Sharps’ daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, in a ceremony at Yad Vashem, on June 13, 2006, in the presence of a large audience, including members of the Sharp family, and Mrs. Eva Esther Feigl, one of the Jews rescued by the Sharps.