Ken Burns trains camera on Holocaust heroism

Ken Burns trains camera on Holocaust heroism

Documentarian helps tell little-known story of Unitarian couple who risked their own lives to save others.

Ken Burns’ elegantly paced and photographed documentaries have sketched the contours of the American soul: the freedom/slavery contradiction of Thomas Jefferson; the North/South divide in the Civil War; the individual/collective tension that animates jazz; and the pastoral/urban drama of baseball.

The celebrated filmmaker’s new project, however, which takes his camera far beyond the country’s shores, is an American story of a different kind. And in telling the tale of a courageous Unitarian couple from New England who saved the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe, Burns did not actually do the bulk of the filmmaking, a first for him. He picked up the project, one begun as a labor of love by the grandson of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, Artemis Joukowsky, an old classmate of Burns’ at Hampshire College, midstream.

Nevertheless, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” which premieres on PBS this month, bears the signs of Burns’ singular style: the black-and-white palette, the use of grainy archival footage, the camera lingering over still photographs, the expert commentary from historians and the familiar voice-overs (Tom Hanks speaks as Waitstill Sharp; actress-nurse practitioner Marina Goldman provides Martha’s voice).   

And in the documentary’s movement between the sweep of history and the intimate personal detail, as well as its narrative arc of lone, heroic individuals facing down long odds, you can sense a through line running from Burns’ film about Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, to this new work.

“I’m a Christian. I found them [the Sharps] incredibly compelling,” Burns told NJJN in a telephone interview. “These people left their comfortable lives to go into the ‘Kingdom of Hell.’ The Sharps’ story is one of courage and love and what it means to embrace others in a time of tremendous need.”

The project almost didn’t come to pass.

Joukowsky, an entrepreneur-turned-self-taught-filmmaker who lives near Boston, had spent about a dozen recent years making a documentary about his late grandparents, but he’d hit a wall. Three years ago, dissatisfied with the progress he was making, he turned to an old friend for advice.

Burns frequently gets such requests. Out of respect for his friend, he agreed to watch a rough cut of Joukowsky’s documentary.

“He’s very good at saying ‘no,’” Joukowsky, who lives in Sherborn, Mass., told NJJN in a telephone interview.

“I think it touched his heart” in 10 minutes, Joukowsky said.

Burns indeed very much liked what he saw. “I agreed to look at his film, fully expecting that a few minutes in I’d decide that the project wasn’t for me,” he writes in the foreword to Joukowsky’s book on the Sharps’ exploits, also titled “Defying the Nazis” and due out this week from Beacon Press, the Unitarian Universalist publishing house.

“Yet what I saw turned out to be an extraordinary diamond in the rough. The Sharps saw there was a job to be done, and, quite simply did it.”

Burns ended up doing some editing, suggesting the addition of some historical context, expanding the documentary from an hour to an hour and a half and eventually agreeing to serve as co-director and executive producer.

Assigned by the American Unitarian Association, the Sharps — Waitstill, a Unitarian minister in Wellesley Hills, Mass., and Martha, a social worker — traveled in 1939 to Prague, and later to Vichy France, leaving their two young children in the care of friends. They rescued at least several hundred people, perhaps many more; no one knows the exact number because the couple, trailed by the Gestapo, burned all their records.

They carried out the rescues by registering refugees, most of them Jewish, lining up the scholarships and employment required for emigration, writing their notes in a hard-to-decipher shorthand, securing release from prison, arranging travel for asylum to London and Geneva, sometimes personally escorting the refugees to safety. To do this, they traded money on the black market, bribed border guards and bought and forged passports. All “illegal” activities that would have cost the Sharps their lives, if caught. “Not the stuff they teach in divinity school,” Burns said.

The Sharps were the second and third people from the United States honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles – the first was Varian Fry, representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee, with whom the couple collaborated. Joukowsky led the effort to have his grandparents honored by Yad Vashem, posthumously in 2006.

Joukowsky, who first learned about his grandparents’ adventures while interviewing his normally taciturn New England grandmother for an 8th-grade assignment 40 years ago, raised money from “family and friends” for the documentary and wrote a book about their exploits; he also established a foundation that awards grants and gives the Sharp Rescuer Prize, which promotes “humanitarian work” following his grandparents’ example.

Burns, whose works have been nominated for two Oscars and won four Emmys (he’s also received an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement), said this is the first documentary he’s produced on which he did not do most of the original work.

He has framed the couple’s story in both a macro context (World War II and the Holocaust) and in a micro one (the effect the Sharps’ decisions had on their children and on their marriage). His goal was to personalize the Shoah. “It’s very difficult to say the words ‘six million’ and have them have any meaning,” he told NJJN.

The documentary includes interviews with people rescued by the Sharps, authors, historians and Holocaust scholars. Burns worked on the project frame-by-frame. “He’s meticulous … a perfectionist,” Joukowsky said. Burns recruited actor Tom Hanks to serve as Waitstill’s voice; in vintage Burnsian fashion, Hanks reads from letters and journals. There is also a haunting musical score, and dramatic re-enactments.

One of them puts into sharp relief the danger the Sharps faced in their rescue mission. As the re-enactment unfolds, it’s a snowy night in 1939 Prague, a few months before the German Army marches into the Czech capital, and a young woman enters a taxicab. Goldman narrates the thoughts of the passenger, Martha Sharp.

Martha’s mission this night is to bring a “Mr. X” to safety. Sitting in the taxi’s back seat, she notices a man sitting next to the driver. Gestapo, she suspects; her work, along with that of her husband, is known to the Nazis’ secret service. She darts from the vehicle a few blocks from her rendezvous point with Mr. X to see if she is being trailed. She is.

A violin score heightens the tension. Young Martha, terrified, breathing hard, presses herself against a wall in a dark alley until the Gestapo agent goes away and she is able to walk up the stairs of an apartment building and meet Mr. X — whose life she and Waitstill are able to save.

Implied in “Defying the Nazis” are several questions: What is the cost of personal sacrifice? What are the limits of commitment to an ideal? What would you do in the Sharps’ shoes?

“I think they’re all answered,” but not directly, Burns said. “Most of us,” he said, “would not do” what the Sharps did.

The Sharps’ life-saving activities, Joukowsky said, were an expression of their Unitarian faith, a liberal religion that rejects the Christian trinity, places deeds above creeds and stresses the moral imperative of social justice work.

The Unitarian Universalist Association, founded when the Unitarians merged with the Universalists in 1961, and the church’s Service Committee have produced a guide to help local Unitarian Universalist leaders and congregations organize interfaith events to coincide with the film’s release. And WETA, the “presenting” PBS station in Washington, D.C., has partnered with Facing History and Ourselves, a New York-based educational organization, to create curriculum materials on the documentary for middle and high school teachers.

Does the documentary have a contemporary political message, coming out in a year when Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements about potential émigrés from Mexico and Muslim countries are playing a prominent role in the presidential campaign?

No, Burns said. “Everyone asks about that.”

Yes, Joukowsky said. “Absolutely. There’s no question.”

Joukowsky, a champion Paralympic table tennis player who has a “mild form” of muscular dystrophy, said he has a particular sympathy for outliers — those with disabilities, those facing physical danger. His No Limits Media production company encourages people of “different abilities … to live lives of opportunity and achievement.”

Why isn’t the Sharps’ story better known?

“The Sharps didn’t shout about their accomplishments,” Burns said. Back in Wellesley Hills, they hardly talked about what they did during the war.

Because Joukowsky started working on the documentary a long time ago, many of the people interviewed in it have died. “About half of the people have passed away,” he said.

Waitstill died in 1984; Martha, in 1999.

What would Joukowsky’s grandparents, modest people, think about the documentary, about the fame that a Ken Burns production will inevitably bring?

They would probably appreciate that the documentary is honest, that it depicts their religious principles translated into concrete acts. “They would be thrilled.” n

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