Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War
Ken Burns’ new documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War tells Martha and Waitstill Sharps’ extraordinary story. These three lesson plans from Facing History use excerpts of the film, personal letters, photographs, and thought-provoking questions to help you explore what motivated the Sharps’ mission, the dilemmas they faced, and the impact of their courageous actions.
In February 1939, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, an American Unitarian minister and his wife, left the safety of their home and family to rescue refugees in Europe on the brink of World War II. This lesson introduces the Sharps and invites students to investigate the choices they made and the risks they took to help strangers. Students begin with a journal entry to prompt reflection on their own decision-making. Then they use a short video and companion readings, including primary sources, to learn more about the Sharps and to create historical character maps. Finally, students discuss the relationship between identity and decision-making in the Sharps’ lives and in their own.
To dig deeper into the ethical and political dilemmas underscoring the Sharps’ story, students begin with an anticipation guide that explores complex questions of how individuals and nations respond to the needs of others. Then they learn the powerful concept of the “universe of obligation.” As they watch an excerpt from the documentary Defying the Nazis and read related primary sources, students use the notion of the universe of obligation to think critically about individual and collective American responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.
This lesson delves into Martha Sharp’s project to bring refugee children from wartime France to the United States in 1940, and it invites students to consider how one person can make a difference in the lives of many. The lesson combines analysis of historical documents with emotional engagement, perspective taking, and personal reflection. It begins with a moving letter from Martha to her eight-year-old son, explaining why she chose to stay in France rather than returning home to be with her own children. Students watch an excerpt from the film that tells, in the voices of those she rescued, the story of Martha’s efforts; then they analyze historical correspondence from the Sharps’ archive to understand how Martha was able to succeed in her mission. Finally, students discuss the legacies of Martha’s work and its significance for us today.