May 5, 2023 – Guest Presenter Rev. Dr. Judith E. Wright

Some Stories from the Holocaust and Unitarianism

I am delighted to be with you all this evening. Rabbi Jan and I are exchanging pulpits this month in the interest of increasing the connection between our two congregations and enhancing a better understanding of how we can be of benefit to one another and the wider community.  Such interfaith exchanges are more than helpful in today’s challenging world.  

I want to begin by sharing with you some personal connections I have to your faith. My deceased husband, my second husband, Rev. Dr. Rudy Nemser, was raised by his Jewish father and Lutheran mother in Manhattan. Rudy’s great-grandfather was a Rabbi in Russia. While my husband became one  of our great Unitarian Universalist ministers, (I’m not biased in any way on this!), he remained, in very profound ways, Jewish in his identity.  

And then, there is my younger daughter, Dianna, who is biracial, adopted at three weeks of age.  She married Matt, who is Jewish and at their wedding,  I was placed on a chair, as the mother of the bride, and swirled around the room, as the gathered wedding folks sang and danced the Hora.  Unforgettable.  

Matt and Dianna chose to raise their two children, Abe and Sophia, my extraordinary grandchildren, Jewish (again, I’m not biased!) They attend the synagogue in Los Angeles, where they celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs.  One fond memory I have of Abe and Sophie when they were young, and I was caring for them when their parents went out for the evening, is when they lit the Hannukah candles and sang in Hebrew the Hannukah songs.

Since tomorrow we will be remembering the Holocaust Yom Ha Shoah – with sharing from Bonnie Abrams – an event we are all looking forward to – I want to prime the pump a little – with some Unitarian Universalist connections to the Holocaust.

First, we have the Sharps.  In 1939 the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Martha, a social worker, at the urging of the American Unitarian Association, courageously left their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and traveled to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to help with the Jewish refugee crisis.  Before the Sharps agreed to go, seventeen other Unitarian ministers had been asked but declined.  

The Sharps’ story is of a dangerous rescue and relief mission across war-torn Europe, saving refugees, political dissidents and Jews.  They barely escaped the Gestapo in Czechoslovakia, only to turn around and go back to Europe in 1940, to continue their relief efforts in Vichy, France, as representatives of the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee.  Then, because of the invasion of France by the Nazis, the Sharps were forced to move their headquarters to Lisbon, Portugal.  

In late 1940 Waitstill Sharp returned home on a cross-Atlantic voyage.  In his small cabin on the ship, he was visited by Lion Feuchtwanger, the famous German Jewish novelist and playwright.  Waitstill had rescued Feuchtwanger as well as other Jews, who were on board the ship headed to  America.  Feuchtwanger, in particular, had been intensely sought after by the Nazis.  Relieved at having been saved, he entered Waitsill’s room and asked him a question that had been on his mind for weeks: 

 “Mr. Sharp,“ he said.  “I am a novelist.   I am more interested in human motivation than any other question.  Why do people do what they do?  May I address you as though you were a character in one of my novels, and ask why are you doing what you are doing?  How much are you paid…?  Is there a payoff from some agency?”   

“Not one escudo, Mr. Feuchtwanger,” Waitstill answered.   

Are you paid a large salary, then, because this is dangerous, difficult, exacting work?”   

I’m not paid a salary at all.  I am a Unitarian minister. My salary to maintain my wife and my two children and my home is paid for by my church.”   Feuchtwanger replied that he didn’t often encounter such altruism.  

I’m not a saint,” Waitstill answered.  “I’m capable of many sins of human nature.”  “But I believe the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit.  So, I do what I do to the greater glory, freedom of the human spirit.”[1]   

Well, that’s a surprising answer,” said Feuchtwanger.   “You get enough reward out of that?”   

Yes, I do,” responded Waitstill ”I don’t like to see guys pushed around.”   “I hate it,” Feuchtwanger agreed.  “And I am going to do whatever I can to stop it and to sustain freedom, by which you mean the liberty of the human spirit.”[2]

Before Waitsill left for the US with Jewish refugees in 1940, Martha Sharp was instrumental in procuring milk for children in desperate need.  After he left, she stayed on in Portugal, working on the children’s emigration project.   She would return to the US, bringing with her 27 child refugees, from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia whose citizenships had been revoked by the Nazis.  As heartbreaking and difficult as it is for us to comprehend the children’s parents’ decisions of letting their children go to America without them, “parents in the 1940s wanted to rescue their children first and foremost.  So, they handed them over to strangers rather than endanger them by keeping them with them.”[3]

In 1943 Martha founded “Children to Palestine,” in alliance with the Jewish women’s organization, Hadassah.  In this new role Martha raised money for orphaned Jewish children to start new lives in Palestine.  In 1944 she would again return to Lisbon, assuming the position of the Associate European Director of the Unitarian Service Committee.

On September 9, 2005, the Sharps, both now deceased, were named by the historical remembrance organization, Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among Nations,”[4] naming them both as individuals who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, in spite of dangers to themselves and others.  Because of their bravery, the Sharps are the second and third Americans so honored, with their names being inscribed on a wall in Jerusalem.

The Sharps’ story is well documented by Ken Burns in his film Defying the Nazis, which I hope you all will see if you haven’t already, What also arose from this horrific time is our Flaming Chalice, which we light in our UU worship services and other events.  Originally our flaming chalice was a two-dimensional symbol, stamped on passports, used by the Unitarian Service Committee, to help Jewish refugees escape.  The chalice design was created by artist Hans Deutsch, who was a refugee himself.  The Unitarian Service Committee Director at that time, Rev. Charles Joy believed that such a logo would make their passports look official, and it worked!  Rev. Joy said that the design was reminiscent of the lamps of holy oil used by ancient Greek and Romans on their altars and that the flame itself represented a spirit of helpfulness and sacrifice. [5] 

Rev. Norbert Fabian Capek is another important Unitarian minister who gave up his very life defending the Jews in Nazi Germany.  Capek and his wife Maja had lived in New Jersey for a few years, as refugees from World War I.  While in our country, they connected with Unitarianism, signed the Membership Book of the Unitarian Church of Exeter County, NJ, and enrolled their children in religious education classes there.  With the war over, in 1921 they returned to their homeland, the newly formed Czechoslovakia, with support from the American Unitarian Association for their new ministry.   By February 1922 the now Unitarian minister, the Rev. Norbert Capek organized the Prague Congregation of Liberal Religious Fellowship with standing room only for his sermons.  His sermons, because of the high demand to hear them, were delivered again on Tuesday evenings and then debated.  On June 24th, 1923, the first Flower Communion was celebrated by Rev. Capek, a service that is now an annual service in many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations today.  It’s a simple ritual of each person bringing a flower or two, from their garden or countryside and placing the flowers on the altar to be blessed.  And then, towards the end of the service, each person takes a different flower home, as a sign of the interconnections of all of us and of creation.  Each person is thus honored for their special contributions made to create the community’s well-being.  We, here, in Laconia, will have our annual Flower Communion this year on June 4th.

In 1926 Maja Capek was also ordained as a Unitarian Minister.  Quite an achievement for a woman of her time.  With the help of the British and Foreign Unitarians as well as the Unitarian Association, the Capeks were able in 1930 to move their congregation into a renovated medieval palace and were officially recognized by the Czech government as the Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia. 

When the Nazis marched into Prague on March 15, 1939, breaking the agreement signed with Great Britain and France the year before in Munich, Germany, the Capeks could have fled to safety in the US.  Instead, they used their connections in the US to raise funds for Czech relief efforts to help those most at risk from the Nazis to get out of the country.   Norbert would preach indirectly against the Nazi occupation as well.  Two years later on March 28, 1941, Norbert and his youngest daughter Zora were arrested by the Gestapo.  They were convicted of listening to foreign radio broadcasts and writing them down for people who couldn’t listen to them – people who needed to know that the Allies were trying to help.  With one month left on his year-long jail sentence, the Gestapo ignored his sentence, and sent Norbert Capek to Dachau, under the label “Return unwanted.”  He was tortured and then executed in a gas chamber in 1942.  Maja and Zora managed to escape.  They came to America, where Maja brought us the beautiful Flower Communion.  Thus, the pain and the inability to find words for the enormous suffering of the Holocaust, as well as honoring the Capeks for their bravery are remembered by many of our congregations every year through the Flower Communion celebration. 

The Sharps had visited the Capeks when they were in Czechoslovakia.  Norbert proclaimed to them his vow, to be true to the cause of human freedom of beliefs.  Ascribing to no one theological stance Norbert celebrated “the hidden cry for harmony with the infinite” in every soul. “Every person,” he wrote “is an embodiment of God and in every one of us, God struggles for higher expression.”[6]   

Norbert Capek was able to give his daughter Zora a letter three months before he was sent to Dachau.  Within the letter is a poem he wrote for her.  Here are some of his words:

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for ideals.

O blow, ye evil winds into my body’s fire -.

My soul you’ll never unravel.

Even though disappointed a thousand times, 

or fallen in fight and everything would worthless seem,

I have lived amidst eternity. 

Be grateful my soul – my life was worth living.”[7]

In closing, we, as Unitarian Universalists today walk with you as allies in the constant fight to endure human freedom to pursue sacred ideals in spite of whatever life throws at us, including unimaginable suffering and pain.  Our congregation of about 75 members here in Laconia has a covenant we say every worship service, that affirms our belief in the sacredness of the religious life.  A religious life that demands not only comforting those afflicted, and affirming what is beneficial to the healthy well-being of all and our planet, but also, to having the courage and resolve to help those in need and to stand firm against the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and love.  We will not tolerate hate and we will work to protect all in our community.   We strive as UUs to be in solidarity with one another, and with all who join with us for a multiracial, pluralistic democracy where all are equal and all thrive.  Let me end by sharing with you our congregation’s covenant:

Love is the spirit of this church

And service is its law.

This is our great covenant.

To dwell together in peace.

To seek the truth in love.

And to help one another.

 Thank you for the privilege to be with you this evening.  Peace and love.


[1] Artemis Joukowsky.  Defying the Nazis.  The Sharp’s War. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016, p. 161.

[2] Artemis Jokowsky,  Defying the Nazis,  The Sharps’ War.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2016, p. 161.

[3] Artemis Joukowsky.  Defying the Nazis. The Sharp’s War.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2016, p. 173.

[4] Artemis Joukowsky.  P. 223.

[5] The Flaming Chalice.

[6] Capek, Norbert.  (1870-1942)  Harvard Square Library.

[7] Norbert Capek Famous Quotes.  Sayings and Quotation (