Companion volume to the upcoming Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about an American couple who rescued people threatened by the Nazi whirlwind in Europe.
Readers familiar with Burns’ documentaries will recognize some of his techniques transferred here into text by writer Joukowsky (co-director of the film), who first approached Burns about this story featuring his grandparents, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a story Joukowsky had thoroughly researched and already begun to film. There are passages quoted from correspondence between the two, touching intimate moments, mentions of myriads of documents, photographs, and interviews (which readers must wait for PBS to see), and follow-ups on the principals and some supporting players. Waitstill was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts when, in 1939, the American Unitarian Association recruited the couple to go to Prague to aid those under imminent Nazi threat. The Sharps succeeded in astonishing fashion, helping people slip out of the country, feeding the hungry, avoiding ubiquitous Nazi surveillance, and rescuing children from utter poverty. There were many near misses, and many moments of frustration, fear, and labyrinthine bureaucracy á la Dickens’ Bleak House. There are also some surprises. They helped the son of Thomas Mann escape; Harvard’s Jerome Bruner supported Martha during her subsequent run for Congress. The author generally adopts a neutral narrative tone, though he does blast Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long (“anti-Semitic, xenophobic”), and a couple of times he notes the irony of the Sharps spending so much time away from their own children to go abroad to help others’ children. But the author’s portraits are generally flattering, even when he chronicles the couple’s divorce. True tension, though, is hard to create when we know from the outset that both survived the war.
A clear, unpretentious volume that justly celebrates a couple who risked all for others.