On May 4th, TBI partnered with the Laconia Congregational Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Laconia Human Relations Committee to present a Yom Hashoah program commemorating the Holocaust and promoting the importance of standing up against injustice.  The event featured a special screening of the acclaimed Ken Burns documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” and was followed by a discussion led by Larry Benaquist. Ph.D., Emeritus Professor Film Studies, Keene State College.

“Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” tells the story of the heroic efforts of Unitarian Minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha. The Sharps, from Wellesley, Massachusetts, risked their lives to save countless Jews and refugees fleeing Nazi persecution across Europe. The film, which premiered on PBS in 2016, was produced by legendary filmmaker Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, III, and is based on the book by Joukowsky, grandson of the Sharps.

In January of 1939, as Americans remained mostly detached from news reports of the growing refugee crisis in the escalating war in Europe, Waitstill received a call from the Rev. Everett Baker, Vice President of the American Unitarian Association, asking if they would travel to Czechoslovakia to help provide relief to people trying to escape Nazi persecution.  He invited Waitstill and Martha to take part in “the first intervention against evil by the denomination to be started immediately overseas.”  The mission would involve secretly helping Jews, refugees and dissidents to escape the expanding Nazi threat in Europe.  If they were discovered, they would face imprisonment, probable torture and death.  Seventeen other members of the church had declined.  With two young children at home, the Sharps accepted.  They expected to be gone for several months.  Instead, their mission would last almost two years.  During this time, the Sharps would face harrowing encounters with Nazi police, narrowly escape arrest and watch as the Third Reich invaded Eastern Europe.  Their marriage would be tested severely and the two children they left behind would be saddened by their parents’ absence.  But dozens of Jewish scientists, journalists, doctors, powerful anti-Nazi activists and children would find their way to freedom and start new lives as a result of their efforts.  To recognize their heroic sacrifice, Martha and Waitstill were honored at Yad Vashem in Israel and declared “Righteous Among the Nations.”  Of the thousands so honored, there are only five Americans, including the Sharps.

Following the documentary screening, a question-and-answer session was led by Larry Benaquist, Ph.D.  Dr. Benaquist is an Emeritus Professor of Film Studies at Keene State College, where he founded the film studies program and played a key role in establishing the Holocaust and Genocide Studies major.  He also has extensive experience teaching courses related to film and the Holocaust.  Dr. Benaquist played a significant role in the production of “Defying the Nazis,” contributing his expertise and research.  His personal experience and insights added a unique dimension to the program.  He shared the stories behind the making of the film, the research, and the production process.   According to Dr. Benaquist, participating in this program “gave me an opportunity to more clearly articulate what our role exactly was, and to give additional information about this complex and interesting couple.”