The latest documentary film by Ken Burns, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War,” was featured in a free screening at the Colonial Theatre in downtown Keene, New Hampshire, Wednesday Oct. 26.
Sponsored by the Keene State College Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the film narrates the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp who helped evacuate Jewish intellectuals and children from Nazi persecution.
The event also featured panel interviews with Keene State College professors Larry Benaquist, Tom Durnford and Bill Sullivan. Artemis Joukowsky III, the Sharp’s grandson and a co-director of the film, and filmmaker Ken Burns were also present at the interview session.
Hank Knight, Director of the Cohen Center, introduced the film prior to the screening. He said, “I am quite fortunate to have partners in the city called the Colonial Theatre,” who were willing to host the film’s screening.
The film tells the formerly obscure story of the Unitarian couple, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who rescued many Jewish intellectuals, generals, citizens and children from Nazi-oppressed Europe.
A Keene State professor of modern languages and culture Tom Durnford said that the concept for the film began in 1999 when Bill Sullivan read Martha Sharp’s obituary in a Providence news journal. Research for the film formally began around the year 2000. Durnford said that Sullivan thought her life would be an interesting topic for a film and recruited Keene State film studies professor Larry Benaquist.
Since many of the documents and letters detailing the Sharp’s philanthropic work during World War II was in French, Durnford said that Benaquist asked him to join the project. Durnford said that he “immediately wrote a letter to Pau (where Martha Sharp was stationed in France) to get more information from the city” regarding the Sharp’s role in evacuating Jewish refugees. Durnford remarked that he was “surprised that it was completely off the record.” Consequently, he “corresponded with the city hall (of Pau) to come and research in the archives and to talk to people who had been alive during the 1940s.”
In 2002, the KSC Faculty Development Program gave Durnford, Benaquist and Sullivan funding to spend a summer in France to conduct further research.
While the three researchers were in France, they used original documents to follow Martha Sharp’s daily itinerary. Durnford remarked that they “could barely keep up with her pace in the 21st century.” Throughout his research on Martha Sharp, Durnford said in amazement that “here’s a woman in 1940 who couldn’t vote and is dealing with the highest levels of government, the Nazis and the Red Cross.
She pulled it all off.” Due to the extensive research the Keene State professors acquired, Durnford said that there is “no reason why not to make another documentary based on these records.”
Keene State College professor Paul Vincent said that he primarily served as the historical consultant throughout the film’s production. Vincent also said that he played a major role in nominating Waitstill and Martha Sharp for the Righteous Among the Nations award from the state of Israel for service to the Jewish community.
Regarding the film’s impact on viewers, Vincent remarked that genocide is “such a tough issue in a political environment.” Vincent also related the film’s subject to the political and societal issues of the 21st century:
“The reason to respond [to genocide] is much greater now than when World War II began. Hearts aren’t going out enough; people don’t immigrate unless the situation is dire.” Vincent also said, “This film is coming out at a great time in history. There are currently more refugees in the world today than in the 1940s.”
Durnford also shared similar thoughts with Vincent about the film’s impact. Durnford said that “the application of what you see in the film is not dissimilar to what is going on in the United States with the Syrian refugee crisis.” Durnford elaborated further and said, “I hope the film provides a wake-up call to young people and has international ramifications.”
Both Vincent and Durnford also noted that the film had a significant impact on them as scholars and as individuals. Vincent said, “I know large facts [about the Holocaust], but when it comes to personal stories like this one, that is what enriches my studies.” Durnford said that the “whole involvement with this project has changed my life and has put me in a new level of research.”
Keene State College sophomore Lizzie Zelenka attended the screening of “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War.” Zelenka said that the film was “really heavy and emotional; it will take a while to really digest it.”
Peter Knox, a first-year at Keene State, said that the film was “an amazing montage of technology used to tie in historical photographs, which was really interesting.” He also stated that the film was “extremely powerful and inspired me to vote in the election.”
“Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War” featured actor Tom Hanks and humanitarian Marina Goldman as the voices for Waitstill and Martha Sharp. The film was co-directed by Artemis Joukowsky III and Ken Burns. Burns also served as executive producer and presenter of the project.
Ethan Chalmers can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org