Varian Fry. Lois Gunden. Roddie Edmonds. Martha & Waitstill Sharp.
Five names I hadn’t heard before this weekend, but thanks to the Ken Burns film Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, I learned about one couple’s courageous efforts to save Jews during World War 2. Waitstill & Martha Sharp left a comfortable American life to head into the middle of the fray in Europe, helping to rescue people at risk of torture or death at the hands of the Nazis.
Near the end of the film, the other 3 names listed above are mentioned. These are names we should know, for these 5 are the only Americans considered as Righteous Among the Nations — as determined by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. In other words, we can count on one hand the number of non-Jewish Americans who put themselves at risk for the sake of Jews caught up in the madness of World War 2.
Varian Fry helped around 1000 Jews escape occupied France, and only quit when he was arrested by the French police and kicked out of the country. Lois Gunden ran a children’s center that protected many Jewish children. She, too, was arrested. Roddie Edmonds was a POW who refused to hand over American Jewish service members to the concentration camps — risking his own life to protect theirs. Along with the Sharps, these 5 were among nearly 28,000 who stepped in when others looked away — or worse. As Yad Vashem’s website describes it:
In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.
What kind of person would put their own life on the line to save another — especially someone they did not know? Were they super-human, super-spiritual people? Well, according to Yad Vashem:
Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model. The Righteous … come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society’s margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.
The movie about the Sharps confirms this point. Their choices saved many lives, but also had a profound impact on their family. They put their lives and their family at risk for those whose lives were in even greater risk. Their story is a reminder that heroes aren’t perfect; their lives are impacted by their choices — sometimes in very difficult ways.
But it’s also a reminder that it’s regular people who often make an outsized difference — when we make ourselves available to the need we see. Every season in life calls for people of faith to “stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility” — wherever it may be found. When we don’t shrink back, but rise up — we stand against the darkness. And even when it might feel like we’re standing in front of a rising tide, sometimes it’s those who simply stand up when others are running who help turn the tide.
This is not a time to shrink back. No matter how small you feel, or how little you think you have to offer: Where are you standing up to the Darkness? Where are you shining some Light?