Film by Artemis Joukowsky and Ken Burns

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'Defying The Nazis' Film by Hampshire Alums Burns and Joukowsky Premieres on PBS

Burns recognized Joukowsky's groundbreaking film as “diamond in the rough” and the friends became creative collaborators for more than three years

Defying The Nazis: The Sharps’ War, a new documentary co-directed by Hampshire alums Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky about a little-known mission by an American couple to rescue refugees and dissidents in Europe at the start of World War II, premieres on September 20 at 9 pm on PBS.

The 90-minute film tells the story of Joukowsky’s grandparents Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian minister and his wife from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who left their children in the care of their parish and boldly committed to multiple life-threatening missions. Over two dangerous years they helped to save hundreds of imperiled political dissidents and Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation.

“It's one of the most incredible tales of compassion, sacrifice and heroism I’ve ever heard, and I was completely unaware of it until five years ago when Artemis Joukowsky first shared it with me,” said Ken Burns. Joukowsky, a film producer and co-founder of No Limits Media, has spent decades researching his grandparents’ story. 

In an interview with entertainment magazine Assignment X, Joukowsky explained that the process for making the film actually began in 1999, when his grandmother had died and he and his filmmaker friends discussed a documentary. He recognized he first needed to bring attention to the level of their sacrifice and heroism, so he began a four-year campaign to get them honored at Yad Vashem. “When Yad Vashem inducted them into their Righteous Gentiles, the whole intention of the project changed, from ‘Artemis’ family project’ to a project that has more of a historical import.” Of the thousands so honored, there are only five Americans, including the Sharps.

Hampshire alums Joukowsky 81F and Burns 71F also recounted to Assignment X the development of their creative collaboration. They graduated a decade apart but became friends as fellow alums. About five years ago, Joukowsky turned to Burns to be an informal advisor on the development of his project.

Burns said this is the first time out of thirty films that he has joined a project after it was shot, but he recognized that Joukowsky had a “diamond in the rough.” On weekends and evenings, Joukowsky would travel to New Hampshire from his home in Massachusetts and they’d screen footage together. This continued for three years.

Burns explained, “I just polished it. I restructured it, I threw out a voice and got Tom Hanks to read Waitstill Sharp’s voice, I moved things that were at the end to the beginning. Gradually, after three years of working on it, I moved from informal advisor to executive producer to co-producer to co-director with him. Legitimately so, because in our business, all the great interviews, all the great shooting, don’t amount to anything until you get to the editing room. That’s where the rubber hits the road.” Read the entire Assignment X interview.

Defying The Nazis is told through the letters and journals of the Sharps, with Tom Hanks as the voice of Waitstill and Marina Goldman as the voice of Martha.  It features firsthand interviews with the now adult children whom the Sharps saved, as well as leading historians, authors, and Holocaust scholars.

“Beyond the cloak-and-dagger suspense of my grandparents’ experience, it is a story of what America meant to refugees fleeing war-torn countries to build new lives,” said Joukowsky, adding he believes the story contains lessons for today’s worldwide refugee crisis.

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 through his church asking if they would travel to Czechoslovakia to help provide relief to people trying to escape Nazi persecution.  Over two years, the Sharps faced harrowing encounters with Nazi police, narrowly escape arrest and watch as the Third Reich invaded Eastern Europe.  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. 

Joukowsky is also the author of a companion book to the film, featuring a foreword by Burns, published by Beacon Press and released on September 6.

The Defying The Nazis project is partnered with Facing History and Ourselves in providing companion curriculum materials to middle schools and high schools, available free to schools through PBS’ LearningMedia Services. Joukowsky co-developed the education curriculum He also organized the strategic alliances of the project, including more than 20 leading Holocaust and education organizations worldwide, with a vision to promote more rescue today.

Joukowsky has devoted much of his life’s work to improving the experience of living with multiple disabilities and promoting community services since he was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, type III, (“SMA”) when he was 14 years old. He is the co-founder with Larry Rothstein of No Limits Media (NLM), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to demonstrate the value and abilities of people with disabilities through a variety of media. NLM helped support Ice Warriors, a film produced by WGBH Boston about the 2014 U.S. Paralympic ice hockey team, which aired on PBS and on NBCSC. It was named one of the six best sports films of the year by Sports Illustrated.

NLM is currently developing a documentary about the high levels of violence against people with disabilities called Three Times the Violence and a film about the Boston Ballet’s Adaptive Dance Program for children with autism and Down Syndrome.

A member of the United States Paralympic Team 2002-2004, Joukowsky competed in the U.S. and abroad. He won national championships in table tennis (2002) for class 6 and won the silver medal in the Mexico City Games (2003). He served on the boards of a number of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, including The American Community School of Beirut, the Greyston Foundation, and Hampshire College’s Center for Design (formerly Lemelson Center for Design).

Ken Burns has been making documentary films for almost 40 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, he has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; Statue of Liberty; Huey Long; Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery; Frank Lloyd Wright; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness:  The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts:  An Intimate History; Cancer:  The Emperor of All Maladies; and, most recently, Jackie Robinson.

Future projects include films about the Vietnam War, the history of country music, Ernest Hemingway and the history of stand-up comedy.

Burns’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including 14 Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations; and in September 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Burns was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Photo credits Rahoul Ghose/PBS

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