Following any of the horrific events that have become all-too-common in modern society, someone on social media inevitably shares Mr. Rogers’s advice to “’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’… I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” These words are true, but after so many tragedies and so many Facebook posts, it becomes easy to dismiss or forget about them. Artemis Joukowsky’s Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War provides clear proof of the veracity of this sentiment. The book tells the true story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who took on the enormous task of helping refugees in Europe as the Nazis were coming to power and World War II was starting. It is also the companion book to the Ken Burns documentary that will be airing on PBS in September.
While the Sharps seemed like an ordinary couple, they had an extraordinary sense of duty that led them to accept the mission put forth by the American Unitarian Association to go to Prague, Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Despite having two young children, Waitstill and Martha go to Prague, learn ways of circumventing the obstacles in their way, outwit the Gestapo, and work to help those who are being oppressed and hunted by the Nazis. After leaving Prague and having a short sojourn at home, they return to Europe during World War II to continue helping those they can.
In many ways, this story seems too fantastic to be true, but Joukowsky, who is the Sharps’ grandson, does an excellent job providing research and facts as support. In some instances, the number of names, dates, and references can weigh down the narrative, but the text’s focus never wavers for long. Joukowsky’s writing style also does not veer far away from the facts. If it is not verified in Martha and Waitstill’s correspondence, excerpts of which are included, or through his interviews with him, the text takes pains not to dramatize the events. This helps further establish Joukowsky as a trustworthy author, but it also can make the narrative a little dry, which is surprising given the suspense that is built into the story. However, despite these minor issues, the book moves quickly and leaves the reader wanting to find out what happened to the Sharps. Additionally, there are places where the straightforward narration works to the book's advantage. The description of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia is especially sobering; any further dramatization would have detracted from the horror of the event.
Another aspect that reinforces the book’s reliability is that Joukowsky examines some of the more everyday facets of the Sharps’ lives. A prime example of this is the tension that exists between the good that Martha wanted to do by helping refugee children and the fact that she did this at the expense of spending time with her own children. Also, rather than closing with the Sharps’ second mission to Europe, Joukowsky follows them post-World War II, as they grow further apart both literally (Martha did a lot of travelling on the lecture circuit, while Waitstill returned to Prague to work for the American Committee for Relief in Czechoslovakia) and figuratively and after their marriage ends. In a perfect world, their bond would have been galvanized by the shared experiences in Europe and would have remained strong. Joulowsky’s exploration of its disintegration reinforces the reality of this story; it is not a fairy tale or fable but the story of two seemingly ordinary people who were able to accomplish extraordinary things under great duress and in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
All in all, Defying the Nazis is a worthwhile and important book. Besides providing the Sharps with the attention they so richly deserve for their heroic actions and showing the personal cost that can come with such actions, it also illustrates how people can rise to the occasion. In short, it is another reminder for us to look for the helpers.