CINEMAflix Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Grade: B+
Director:  Ken Burns, Artemis Joukowsky
Cast: Voices of Tom Hanks, Marina Goldman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/24/16
Opens: September 9, 2016

Princeton University professor Peter Singer, perhaps the best-known philosopher of ethics in the U.S. today, advocates the view that we in this country should not be so centered on ourselves and our fellow citizens and residents.  If children in Africa need help more than children in America, then we should consider making our charitable donations to them rather than to our “own” people.  This view brings to mind the heroism of Waitstill Sharp and Martha Sharp, both Unitarian ministers—who might normally be interested principally in followers of their own theology.  Yet the Sharps, noting the danger faced Jews and dissidents in Europe while the Nazi hordes began their invasions, felt compelled to help.  To paragraph Peter Singer, if the children of Europe needed help more than their own two children, then they felt a mandate to leave their own kids to be cared for by others in the parish while they headed into the mouth of the dragon.

This documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” is to be aired in New York’s Cinema Village and Los Angeles’ Music Hall September 9 for one week for Academy Awards eligibility, then broadcast September 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS.  Directors Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky (the latter being the grandson of the Sharps who spent years researching the little known story of heroism) put together a cinematic treatment which will be accompanied on September 6 by a Beacon Press book on the perilous adventure.

Under the auspicious of the American Unitarian church and with $40,000, they sailed from their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts to Prague, Czechoslovakia to help refugees on the brink of the Second World War.  They were somehow able to get exit visas for a number of individuals, transporting them from Prague across Germany (where they were almost caught by the Gestapo), and arranged for visas for refugees to Great Britain and elsewhere.

After setting up a base in Lisbon, cancelling plans to have an office in France after that country was conquered, Martha and Waitstill helped Jewish children to escape from Vichy France.

The adventure is given fine cinematic treatment, including the usual archival shots of Nazis burning books and Hitler’s gloating in Czechoslovakia.  A special treat comes from its editor, Erik Angra, who cleverly transposed some of the rescued people’s pictures as children into their appearances decades later.  Some have already died, including the Sharps whose marriage broke up in 1954.  Among the rescued are authors and Holocaust scholars such as William Schulz (“In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All”), Deborah Dwork (Auschwitz”), Mordecai Paldiel (“Sheltering the Jews”), Ghanda DiFiglia (“Home from Bethlehem”), and Yehuda Bauer (“A History of the Holocaust”).

The Sharps, who at one point said the obligatory “anyone would have done this” (untrue since seventeen Unitarians rejected the call), were recognized by Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations,” Gentiles who without compensation committed heroic acts to save Jewish lives.  What is not stated is why Israel waited until 2006 to grant this status, making the Sharps two of the only five American Gentiles whose names are featured in Yad Vashem for heroism.

Unrated.  90 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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