Regular readers of these letters know that I have returned many times to the question of what constitutes a true hero in an age that so clearly values celebrity over moral valor.
Years ago, I wrote in that vein about Miep Gies, the woman who was personally responsible for hiding the Frank family in German-occupied Amsterdam. (To reread what I had to say about Miep Gies, click here.) More recently, I wrote about Janusz Korczak, the teacher who chose to accompany the children in his charge to their deaths, and to his, at Treblinka on August 6, 1942, rather than abandon them to their fate merely because that option was available to him. And in that same piece I also wrote about Lassana Bathily, the young Muslim man from Mali who selflessly risked his life to hide however many Jewish patrons of the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris back in January 2015 when it was suddenly under attack. (To read what I had to say about him, and also about Janusz Korczak, click here.) And it was just this last February that I wrote about Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, the American officer captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge who put his own life on the line rather than assist the Nazis in identifying the Jewish prisoners they had captured. (To reread that letter, click here.)
All of these people had different stories that unfolded in different places and against different backgrounds. But the one thing they had in common—with the obvious exception of Korczak, who died before he could comment on his own behavior—is their common disinclination to describe their own actions as heroic. Let me quote specifically Lassana Bathily in that regard. Upon being granted French citizenship as a reward for his actions at the Hyper Cacher, he said the following: “People say I am a hero, but I am not a hero at all…I would do the same again too, because I was only following my heart.” Using different language, that’s what all of the people mentioned above said or, I think, would have said had they had the opportunity: that there is something odd, perhaps even a bit perverse, about using words like “heroism” and “bravery” to describe simple acts of decency and kindness to others…and that this is true even in the extreme situation: whatever the real definition of heroism is, it should not be simply doing the right thing. When I put it that way, it sounds like an obvious truth. But does any of us really not think of Sgt. Edmonds—who refused to abandon the men in his charge with the barrel of a German officer’s gun pressed to his forehead—as a hero? And so we have a bit of a paradox: the notion that normal decency should never be described as bravery or heroism sounds right enough, but we balk at following that thought through to its logical conclusion by agreeing with Lassana that he was just behaving normally and not heroically at all when he risked his life selflessly to help innocents.
And now we come to the Sharps, Waitsell and Martha, the subject of a very well done documentary by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky that aired earlier this week on PBS. By all accounts, the Sharps were unlikely people to end up remembered primarily for their death-defying sacrifices to rescue Jews and other dissidents from Nazi-occupied Europe. Waitstill, born in 1902, descended from some of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was as born-and-bred a Yankee as they come. Martha, originally Martha Ingham Dickie, was born in 1905 and trained as a social worker at Northwestern University before marrying Waitstill in 1927, the year after he graduated Harvard Law School and the year before he walked away from a very promising career as a lawyer and decided instead to become a Unitarian minister.
Once the Rev. Sharp was ordained, the couple settled in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he became pastor of the Unitarian Church of Wellesley Hills in 1936. It must have seemed like an idea situation for them both: a respected pulpit, a lovely home, a peaceful town, a promising career. They eventually had two children, a son and a daughter. If some visitor from the future had come to Wellesley one Sunday morning and, taking a congregant or two aside, had showed them pictures of the Sharps’ trees along the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem and explained what exactly it meant to be honored in that place with that kind of memorial, I’m sure it would have been only slightly less believable than being told their minister and his wife were from some other planet and were only visiting Earth temporarily while the mother ship refueled at some interplanetary docking station. (The Sharps were the second and third Americans so honored. Roddy Edmonds was the fifth.)
It all began innocently enough with an offer from the Unitarian leadership that the Sharps take on the assignment of leading the church’s effort to assist refugees in Prague in finding countries of refuge and ways to travel to those countries. They had no anterior reason to feel engaged by the plight of European refugees or of Jewish victims of Nazi anti-Semitism. They had no ties to Europe at all. Yet, feeling called to act even though it meant leaving their children in the care of others while they would be away, the Sharps accepted their church’s offer and were present in Prague when the German Army, not stopping at the borders of the Sudetenland (which had been offered up to Germany by the French, Italians, and British as a kind of desperate peace offering at the Munich Conference the previous September), occupied all of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. For the next six months, the Sharps traveled in and out of Prague, personally bringing would-be refugees to the embassies of different countries that might agree to take them in, visiting prisoners in prison to attempt to secure their release, and attempting to arrange safe passage for many of the most severely persecuted people, including many Jews, whom they met and resolved to help.
At a certain point, it became clear that the Sharps were facing arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo. They fled to Paris, were reunited there (after Waitstill had been denied permission to re-enter Czechoslovakia), and returned home. But they didn’t remain in Wellesley and the following year, in 1940, they returned to Europe to pick up where they left off. They arrived in Paris on the eve of the German occupation, however, and were soon obliged to relocate to Lisbon. (Eventually, they also opened an office in Marseilles.) In the course of their time in Europe, they assisted not hundreds but thousands of refugees to escape Europe. Not all were Jews, of course—many were political dissidents or just ordinary citizens who spoke out against Nazism and were now considered enemies of the Reich—but there were among those the Sharps saved many Jewish people, including especially many children.
This was, I hardly have to stress, not “regular” social work of the sort in which social workers routinely engage. Speaking at Yad Vashem, the Sharps’ daughter referred to her parents as “ordinary people” who did what they did not because they thought of themselves as heroes but simply because they could not imagine stepping away from the opportunity to do immense good in the world for others.
Those words, “ordinary people” stay with me possibly because I too think of myself as an ordinary person, not as a natural-born gibbor who laughs at danger or seeks out opportunities to demonstrate my innate bravery to the world. And, in most senses of the word, the Sharps probably were ordinary people. They went to college, married, worked, became parents, planned for the future. In most ways they must have resembled most people of their time and place. And yet…when the world was on the brink of war, when the savagery of the Nazis was becoming widely known to all who cared to see, when the opportunity beckoned to step into the light and to do something extraordinary, the Sharps responded easily, almost casually. That they did not come to think of themselves as heroes once the war ended and they returned to their “regular” lives is probably a function of the same set of character traits that drew them to risk everything to do good in the first place. And it is that specific combination of character traits—the willingness to risk everything do good, and the disinclination to label such willingness as heroism—that draws me to the Sharps and their story.
Labeling people who do good as heroes mostly serves solely to make people who do not think of themselves in that way feel reasonable about doing nothing in the face of other people’s suffering…and particularly when alleviating that suffering would involve considerable risk. And yet what were the Sharps if not heroes? Years ago I read Hans Falluda’s truly great novel, Every Man Dies Alone. Set in Nazi Berlin, the book tells the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, called the Quangels in the novel, who undertake a futile, fully hopeless campaign of civil disobedience against the Nazis. Their efforts are both pathetic and incredibly noble; they risk everything to resist evil and, in the end, they pay an awful price for their refusal to do nothing. It’s an extraordinary book, one I recommend to all students of human nature precisely because the Quangels too cannot stand being thought of heroically and insist that they are simply behaving righteously and patriotically. But as the book enters its final chapters and it becomes clear how things are going to end up…I find myself unable not to think of them as true heroes, as people who exemplify the kind of selfless bravery I like to think I too would be able to summon up in an analogous situation. May I be spared ever from finding out if I’m right!
Standing up and risking everything to do good is heroism at its most exemplary, even if part of being a hero apparently involves not seeing oneself in that light. To honor such acts, though, by distancing ourselves from the possibility of mimicking them is to miss the point almost entirely. We honor our heroes by allowing ourselves to imagine doing as they did, thus growing into finer versions of ourselves because of the example set for us by others. Perhaps that is what it means to be a hero: to inspire others to do good…heroically.