September 21st, 2016
New documentary by Ken Burns tells the story of a minister and his wife who save Jewish lives in the Shoah
By BEN SALES
(JTA) — In 1940, as he was being transported to safety in the lower deck of a ship, the Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger asked Waitstill Sharp why the American Unitarian minister had bothered to rescue him from the Nazis.
Sharp and his wife, Martha, had spent much of the previous two years smuggling Jews out of Nazi-controlled territory. Saving people from persecution, the clergyman told Feuchtwanger, was what any able person should do.
“I think something frightful, in addition to what has befallen Europe, is going to befall now,” Sharp later recalled saying. “I’m not a saint. I’m just as capable of the sins of human nature as anyone else. But I believe that the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit.”
It’s an intimate moment in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, a documentary co-directed by the renowned filmmaker Ken Burns that takes a highly personal look at the American Christian couple who left a quiet life in New England, traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe and smuggled hundreds of Jews to safety.
The movie, which relies on written recollections of the Sharps (Waitstill is voiced by Tom Hanks), archival footage, and interviews with survivors and historians, premiered Sept. 20 on PBS. It will also be screened for press at the White House next week, followed by a panel discussion on the current refugee crisis.
Defying the Nazis is a change of pace for Burns, a director best known for sweeping documentaries on broad topics — see: Civil War, Jazz or Baseball. But when confronting the Holocaust’s enormity, Burns said the best approach was to focus on narrow, resonant stories like that of the Sharps rather than statistics that can mask the pain of mass atrocity.
“The number six million has become rather opaque,” Burns told JTA by phone from his office in New Hampshire. “We just say it, and it lacks dimension and specificity. Here you have a story of two people who saved a few hundred people on the edges of that Holocaust.”