Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War

It sometimes seems that there’s never an end to the horrifying things humanity will do to one another. Stories like the ones told in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War offer an antidote to the toxicity, proving ordinary people have done—and we hope will continue to do—extraordinary things in defiance of hate.

Periodically, they returned home to children who were growing up without them.

In this Ken Burns documentary (released last fall and recently made available on Netflix), Tom Hanks and Marina Goldman narrate the voices of an American Unitarian minister and his wife who left their small children behind to infiltrate Nazi-controlled territory and help hundreds of refugees escape the Holocaust.

The Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, were young parents in 1939 when the American Unitarian Association asked them to join efforts in Czechoslovakia to help Jewish citizens and political dissidents evade persecution by the Nazis. Their son was seven, and their daughter two, but the Sharps felt they couldn’t resist the call to do something to help people in danger. They made the agonizing decision to leave their children in the care of others and embarked on their mission, which included training in espionage tactics like forging documents, coded messages, and memorizing information. What’s more, they had to cultivate instincts of suspicion and subterfuge, forever changing their outlook on the world.

With those tools in hand, they took on multiple missions throughout Europe: running a secret consul for desperate Jewish Czechs, escorting political targets through Nazi Germany, and later helping more refugees escape France through Spain and Portugal, often coming within a shadow of capture and torture themselves. Periodically, they returned home to children who were growing up without them. Both Waitstill and Martha wrestled with that fallout in different ways as they tried to balance their love for their family with the ties they felt to the worsening situation in Europe. Martha herself took special interest in helping children escape to the United States and England. The documentary features many interviews with these children, now elderly Americans or Englishmen and women.

All the hallmarks of a Ken Burns documentary are present, right down to the skillful interplay of music and atmosphere to bring still photos or grainy old footage to life, rendering what could be a flat narrative into an almost cinematic story. In one particularly striking scene, Burns skillfully recreates a conversation between Waitstill and a famous German-Jewish author he has helped escape France. The author, Lion Feuchtwanger, asks Waitstill why he’s doing this dangerous work. Waitstill gives an excellent answer, and the entire conversation goes back and forth between photos of the two men. In the wrong hands, the effect could be cheesy. Instead, I didn’t even realize I wasn’t watching the actual conversation until it was nearly finished.

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is an encouraging message about the good the individual can do, an allegory for the modern Syrian refugee crisis, and a cautionary tale about the irrevocable toll such hero-figures pay in their personal lives. As a mother whose children are similar in age to Martha Sharp’s children in 1939, I have a hard time grasping what it must have taken to leave them behind for a mission like this. But as Martha herself points out, the decision thousands of Jewish parents made to put their children in the care of strangers—never knowing if they would see them again—was even more heartbreaking. Thanks to the Sharps, those parents didn’t have to see their children taken by Nazi hands, but knowing they were saving their children couldn’t have made saying goodbye any less painful.


Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is unrated, but I would give it a PG-13 for the subject matter. It doesn’t have any particularly graphic depictions of concentration camps and the like, but there is one scene with human bodies piled on a cart that could be very upsetting for children who are old enough to understand what they are.

Herald Press has just released a new book (translated from German) written by journalist Hanna Schott, Love in a Time of Hate: The Story of Magda and André Trocmé and the Village That Said No to the Nazis, which is the story of an entire courageous town that risked lives saving children and families during World War II. Find more information on the book and purchase here.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.