by Dr. Rafael Medoff
The United States House of Representatives this week unanimously adopted a resolution honoring the Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian couple from Massachusetts who traveled to Europe to rescue Jews and other refugees from the Nazis.
At a time when many American Christians showed relatively little interest in the plight of Europe’s Jews, the Sharps displayed extraordinary humanitarianism and courage. There is a tragic end to their story, however: the U.S. State Department not only failed to rescue Jews from Hitler, but actually took steps that put an end to the rescue operations that the Sharps and their colleagues had initiated.
Working in German-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Sharps helped Jewish refugees and anti-Nazi activists escape from the clutches of the Gestapo. They once saved a Czech member of parliament by smuggling him through a hospital morgue in a body bag. In 1940-1941, the Sharps became a key part of the underground rescue network set up in Vichy France by the American journalist Varian Fry.
Fry’s mission was to arrange the illegal emigration of cultural, literary, and political figures –most of them Jews– who faced arrest, and worse, at the hands of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. They smuggled most of these refugees across the Pyrenees mountains into neighboring Spain, and from there into neutral Portugal. The Sharps, who were stationed in Lisbon for part of this time, arranged for the escapees to travel to the United States or South America.
One of the obstacles these rescue activists faced was the unwillingness of the Roosevelt administration to take in Jewish refugees. The problem was not only America’s tight immigration quotas, but also the fact that the State Department instructed American consular officials abroad to “postpone and postpone and postpone” granting immigration visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis.
As a result, during the years of Hitler’s reign (1933-1945), less than thirty-six percent of the German-Austrian quota places were used. During the years that the Nazis were slaughtering six million European Jews, that is, 1941-1945, nearly 190,000 quota places from Axis-controlled countries sat unused. In other words, even under the restrictive quotas, 190,000 more lives could have been saved.
Fortunately, not all U.S. consular officials were cut from the same cloth. The vice-consul in Marseille, Hiram (Harry) Bingham IV, defied the State Department and secretly provided Fry with the visas and travel documents needed to help the refugees–despite the fact that Bingham’s boss, Consul General Hugh Fullerton had told him not to give visas to Jews because “the Germans are going to win the war–why should we do anything to offend them?”
Fry and Bingham smuggled novelist Lion Feuchtwanger out of a French internment camp by disguising him in women’s clothes and then hiding him in Bingham’s house until they could get him and his wife to the Spanish border. There, with Rev. Sharp’s help, they were taken across the Pyrenees to safety. The operation was nearly torpedoed when, at the customs line to enter Portugal, an American journalist spotted the famous novelist and called out “Mr. Feuchtwanger!” Sharp pulled her aside and silenced her in the nick of time. “I just wanted a scoop,” the reporter weakly explained.
Altogether, Fry, Bingham, the Sharps and their fellow-rescuers helped save an estimated 2,000 people, including the artist Marc Chagall, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof, the poet Franz Werfel, and the philosopher Hannah Arendt, as well as many refugees who were not famous but just needed help.
They could have saved many more–if the State Department had let them.
Since the U.S. had not yet entered World War II, the Roosevelt administration was trying to maintain friendly relations with Germany. In addition, the administration feared Fry’s efforts would increase pressure to permit more refugees into the United States. So when furious German officials began complaining about Fry’s refugee-smuggling work, the administration responded. First, it transferred Bingham out of France. Then it canceled Fry’s passport, forcing him to halt his rescue work and return to the United States in September 1941.
Unfortunately, neither Fry, Bingham, nor the Sharps lived to receive the recognition they deserved. Fry passed away in 1967. Twenty-eight years later, he became the first American to be honored as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Holocaust center, Yad Vashem. Rev. Sharp died in 1984, Martha in 1999. Last year, they became the second and third Americans recognized by YadVashem. Harry Bingham (d. 1988) was last year honored with the issuing of a U.S. postage stamp bearing his likeness.
Let us salute these heroes for staying true to America’s noble tradition of helping the oppressed and persecuted, at a time when their own government turned a blind eye to their plight.