This grandma had a fascinating tale of lives saved


Yes, Ken Burns sometimes tackles sweeping subjects -- world wars, Prohibition, baseball and such. But he can also help break out small slices, individual heroes. One such tale is recounted in an excellent documentary that reaches PBS on Tuesday (Sept. 20); here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

It was the sort of
assignment many kids get: Interview someone who has shown moral
courage.

And it led to one of
life's great understatements. As Artemis Joukowsky recalls it: “My
mom ... said: 'Talk to your grandmother. She did some cool things
during World War II.'”

Yes, some very cool
things. Using deception and determination, Martha Sharp and her
husband (Rev. Waitstill Sharp) got Jewish kids out of Nazi-held
countries. “They were the most giving, responsible, courageous
people I have ever known,” said Amelie Diamont-Holmstrom, one of
the hundreds saved.

Joukowsky was 14
when he heard this. “It changed my life,” he said. Almost four
decades later, he's linked with Ken Burns for a fascinating
documentary (“Defying the Nazis”) that debuts Tuesday.

“This was like (a
spy) novel, only it was all true,” Burns said. “This normal
couple (is) sitting by their fire and the phone rings. A month
lather, they're in Prague, doing James Bond things.”

It was a huge
stretch for them, said Beth Hoppe, PBS' programming chief. “A
Unitarian minister and his wife embarked on a dangerous journey (to
Prague). Over the next two years, they would take part in dozens of
clandestine missions across Europe, saving hudereds of lives.”

Why didn't their
grandson hear about this until he was 14? There were two key reasons,
he said:

-- This wasn't
something his mother talked about. These missions took her parents
away from her ... and, ultimately, from each other. When the Starks,
who later divorced, went to Europe, they left their children (ages 7
and 2) with parishioners. “My mom,I think, felt a sense of
abandonment.”

-- And his mom's
archeology work took them around the world. “I was born in Italy,
lived in Lebanon, lived in Hong Kong .... It wasn't until I moved to
New York that I got to know my grandparents.”

Once he did, he
found his grandmother to be a fierce force. “Her personality was
larger than life – loving, very engaged with people. She was a very
passionate philanthropist.”

And he was meeting
her at a key time. Joukowsky had been diagnosed with a nueromuscular
disorder that eventually put him in a wheelchair. “My grandmother
came to my hospital and said, 'Come on, we're not going to feel sorry
for ourselves. We're going to go help with the Boys & Girls
Clubs.'”

He's gone on to be
an investor and a disability activist, whileworking on her story. “I
went into the basement of my grandfather's home and found about 800
documents that started this,” he said.

He was able to
identify 200 of the rescued children and interview 30 of them. He
also met Burns; these were friendly chats between two grads (a decade
apart) of Hampshire College.

“I started off
just as a friend ... and sort of an advisor,” Burns said. Then he
was helping to produce it and got his friend Tom Hanks to voice Rev.
Sharp. “These films are made in the editing room.”

The Sharps have been
honored in Israel and in the U.S. But the real symbols of their lives
have been the people they rescued, including the Diamont triplets.

These were the
daughters of a dentist and a violinist-artist. “We have always had
each other,” said Amelie, 89. “We were our own little group.”

That was helpful
when they were slipped out of Austria. Eventually, their parents were
re-united with them in Portland, Oregon. Amelie went on to be an
author, teacher, counselor and grandmother.

That's typical of
many of the people who were rescued, Burns said. “Of the two-dozen
or so people who appear in our film, there's extraordinary
accomplishment.”

So Joukowsky's
project offers plenty of happy endings. He adds one more: “It was
the only “A” I ever got in high school.”

-- “Defying the
Nazis: The Sharps' War”

-- 9-10:30 p.m.
Tuesday (Sept. 20), PBS (check local listings)