by Ghanda Di Figlia, Harvard University, author of Roots and Visions
The family of British immigrants to which Martha Ingham Dickie was born worshipped at historic First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Founded by Roger Williams in 1638 after he fled persecution in Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Church’s legacy included religious free-thinking, respect for diversity, and world service. They were values that seeped into the soul of the young girl who attended services there from the age of three. She learned from the catechism of her day that the mission of the Church was “to proclaim the gospel to all mankind, to exalt the worship of God and to labor for the progress of knowledge, the promotion of peace and the realization of human brotherhood.” A focal point in the Sunday School was a picture of the church connected by red, white and blue ribbons to places on a world map where missionary activity, supported by First Baptist, was taking place. Missionaries from such places as Burma, Japan and Africa spoke frequently at church gatherings. By the time she was in high school, the idealistic young woman felt drawn to the life of a medical missionary.
After graduating from Pembroke College, Martha’s inclination toward service led her to seek a career in social work. She entered Northwestern University’s Recreation Training School centered in Hull House, the Chicago settlement house founded by social worker Jane Addams in 1889. Upon completion of the course, she became Director of Girls’ Work for the Chicago Commons settlement house with care for some 500 young women of 26 different nationalities. She reveled in the diversity and the challenges of social work, thinking, with her marriage in 1927 to Waitstill Hastings Sharp, that she had taken only temporary leave of the profession. Although it was a career to which she never returned, Martha used many of its skills in other spheres of activity including her work some twelve years later for the Unitarian Service Committee.
Her husband had fulfilled his family’s expectations by graduating from Harvard Law School although he had as a boy dreamed of a career in the foreign service. During his third year of law school however he came to know Dr. Eugene Shippen, minister of Second Church in Boston. He became part-time director of religious education at Second Church and, later, through the support of Dr. Shippen, National Director of Religious Education for the American Unitarian Association (AUA). Several years later, he was ordained a Unitarian minister and in 1933 took the pulpit of a small church in Meadville, Pennsylvania. His wife noted that his sermons brought together his interest in international affairs and Unitarian theology. While it was a truism at the time that a church paid for one minister but got two, with Martha, the church was at least three-times blessed. She facilitated much of the youth work, religious education activities, and women’s meetings, to say nothing of innumerable church suppers and, to use her own words, providing the “sympathetic listening and behind the scenes facilitating” that came with the territory. Waitstill, she noted, was incapable of “small talk” even with children, so that her amiability and ease with people of all kinds and all ages gave balance to their ministry.
While in Meadville, Martha also worked with local internationalist and peace groups, the world situation having become an ever-increasing source of concern for her and for her husband. By the time of their next pastorate, in April 1936, at the Unitarian Church of Wellesley Hills, Hitler had consolidated his control of Germany and and was a few months away from securing the alliance with Mussolini in Italy. Spain was on the threshold of civil war. With an eye on these and other events, the Sharps started an International Relations Club. At the November 1938 meeting of the club, following the ceding of the Sudetenland to Hitler through the Munich Agreement, the Sharps led a discussion on “The Rape of Czechoslovakia.” They had no way of knowing that within three months they would be on their way to Czechoslovakia as emissaries of Unitarian intervention in the tragic history of that beleaguered country.
The way toward that intervention was paved by the AUA leadership immediately after the capitulation at Munich. There was at the time a Unitarian movement of some 3,500 souls in Czechoslovakia, with a main church, Unitaria, in Prague that had been nurtured by Unitarians in the U.S. and Britain. The denomination felt a strong connection as well to the 700,000 member Czech National Church, founded after World War I by religious liberals who withdrew from the Czech Catholic Church. The Executive Committee of the AUA, led by Dr. Frederick May Eliot, president and Dr. Robert Dexter, head of the Department of Social Relations, invited a delegation of Quakers to join a Commission for Service in Czechoslovakia. In early November, Dr. Dexter and the Quaker representative, Richard Wood, sailed for Europe on a fact-finding mission. Dexter and Wood made contacts in London, Paris, and Geneva with British Friends and Unitarians, government officials and refugee aid groups through which rescue efforts and relief operations could be coordinated. The task was formidable: by November 16, Dexter and Wood sent back a preliminary report estimating that of the 200,000 refugees from the Sudetenland now crowded into Prague, between 22,000 to 26,000 needed immediate emigration assistance.
In their absence the Unitarian leadership set about fundraising and searching for suitable “commissioners” who would carry the Unitarian witness to the Czech people. At a meeting in mid-January with the Reverend Dr. Everett Baker, the Sharps agreed to be those witnesses. In later years, both Martha and Waitstill recalled grave misgivings about leaving their children, 7-year-old Hastings and 2-year old Martha Content “without any parental supervision or befriending,” as Waitstill put it. Convinced, however, that the children would be well cared for by family friends who agreed to live in the parsonage and that the church would be in the capable hands of Dr. Baker, they set out for London via New York on February 4. They carried $12,000 in Unitarian relief funds and $29,000 from a Czech relief committee formed in New York by Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University. They spent a couple of weeks meeting with the contacts Dexter had made in London, Paris, and Geneva. These were the people who would be trying to get jobs, fellowships, or invitations of any kind that would enable the Sharps’ clients in Czechoslovakia to get out. The Sharps arrived in Prague on February 23. They immediately made contacts with personnel at the U.S. Consulate, with Czech government officials and with heads of voluntary agencies like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and with leaders of the Czech churches. Because the money from the Butler committee was specifically earmarked for large scale Sudenten refugee resettlement projects, they worked with government representatives to discern how best the money could be used. From rooms in the former Ministry of Health, given to them by the Czech government and with the help of some bilingual Czech students, the Sharps processed dossiers of people needing to escape. On February 27 Martha had a sufficient number of dossiers to warrant a four-day sojourn in London for a meeting with members of the contact groups. These activities continued as planned until March 15 when the German army marched into Prague. Shielded by Waitstill’s cover as a visiting minister, the pair stayed on until August. Because they had come to Czechoslovakia before March 15, their exit visas allowed them to reenter the country after taking short trips abroad so that between March 15 and early August they made six separate trips to their various European contacts. On one of those trips, Martha led 35 refugees, including two children whose parents had committed suicide, to safety in England. Waitstill estimated that they had about 3,500 clients, mostly journalists, writers and artists, other professional men and women, political leaders, and students. Many of these were Jewish and, therefore, doubly in danger. The Sharps were unable to keep records so who those people were and what percentage of them actually did escape and—beyond that—survive the war, is unknown.
The other part of the Sharps’ mission, refugee relief, was easier to document. For Unitaria, the Unitarian congregation in Prague, they bought supplies of food, medicine, and wool which were secreted under the the great heavy tiles of the church floor. With the long term optimistically in mind, they gave money to Unitaria to pay down the mortgage. They helped the Czech National Church with a publication project and assisted the Salvation Army in its feeding program. Over a period of four months, they provided dinners and suppers for 350 German and Austrian refugees. Waitstill reported that by summer’s end, 284 of them had escaped. The care of children was a primary concern. They gave money to children’s homes and summer camps, to a refugee maternity pavilion sponsored by the Czech Red Cross and to a children’s relief project in Brno. Finally, there were subventions for students who were planning to leave by way of a secret route through Poland and then to England. While having lunch in a Prague cafe after the war, Waitstill was approached by a young Jewish woman to whom he had given ten thousand crowns for that journey. She had spent the war in the service of the British army as a cartographer, the only one of a family of 88 to survive.
The Unitarian mission did not escape Nazi suspicion. On April 13 their offices were rifled and on the 17th, while Waitstill was outside the country, Martha came to work to find that the furniture had been tossed out into the street. She moved the operation to a student bungalow until it was closed down entirely on July 25. They stayed on, gathering loose ends until August. Waitstill left first on August 9, planning to return after attending a meeting of liberal religious youth in Arcegno, Switzerland. He was not allowed back into Czechoslovakia. Martha left on August 15, three weeks after the Nazis closed down all foreign refugee offices, and, as she learned after the war, a day before she was to be taken to Gestapo headquarters for questioning. They left from Cherbourg for New York on August 30. Before the boat landed, Germany had invaded Poland, and World War II was underway.
The tragic moment coupled with the denomination’s pride in the Sharps’ work led to the realization of what may have been a long-standing dream of at least a few members of the Unitarian leadership, especially of Robert Dexter: the establishment of a Unitarian counterpart to the widely-respected American Friends Service Committee. In the fall of 1938, at the first meeting called in response to the Munich treaty, Dexter noted that Quaker charitable works had “done more to create respect and admiration for a particular religious body and a particular religious point of view than any publications they have ever printed, than any buildings they have ever built.” Waitstill Sharp and Robert Dexter were two of a seven-member committee that worked toward the formation of the Unitarian Service Committee, established in May 1940 as a standing committee of the American Unitarian Association. Today, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a respected international agency funding grassroots development projects abroad and addressing social justice issues in the United States.
Prior to sending representatives to continue the work begun by Martha and Waitstill, the denomination sent Dr. Dexter and his wife, Dr. Elisabeth Dexter, on another fact-finding mission. They returned with a plan to establish a center in Paris with a $20,000 a year budget from which Unitarian representatives would provide relief to Czech refugees and act as liaison with their separated families in Rumania, Hungary, or wherever in still-free Europe they might be. This plan and the sending over, by June 15, of representatives, preferably the Sharps, to carry it out was ratified by the Unitarians after the Dexters returned home in May. By that time, the area of possible operation in Europe was steadily narrowing. The Nazis had invaded Denmark and Norway in early April. As May unfolded, they occupied Luxembourg and the Netherlands, invaded France and took control of Belgium. Despite these conditions, the Unitarians proceeded with their plans. Martha and Waitstill accepted the new commission, although with reluctance at leaving their children for a second time. On June 14, a day before the Sharps could board the ship that was to take them to France, the Nazi army invaded Paris. While the upheaval caused the original plans to be scuttled, it didn’t deter the Sharps or anyone else at the AUA from proceeding with the mission. Percival Brundage, a member of the AUA Board, secured air tickets to Lisbon for the Sharps. Brundage was also a member of the Committee for the Care of European Children, newly-created to bring children from war zones to safety in the United States. He asked Martha to find French children whose parents might want them to emigrate to the United States for the duration of the war. His suggestion led to Martha’s major endeavor during the fall of that year: the emigration of 29 children from Vichy France to the United States.
Martha and Waitstill reached Lisbon on June 20 with no particular instructions save a mandate to see what the new situation required and to do it as best they could. Through contacts they had made the previous year, the Sharps learned that there was a critical need for food in southern France, now crowded with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Children, especially, were at grave risk. For $5,400, the Sharps bought a twelve-ton carload of condensed and powdered milk and Nestogen, a farina and milk product. They planned to send it to the village of Pau in the Basses Pyrenees where Donald and Helen Lowrie, Paris contacts during their mission to Czechoslovakia, were acting as relief agents for the YMCA, the American Red Cross, and a Czech refugee group. The French Red Cross in Portugal provided a second carload of clothing and additional food which the Sharps arranged to send to Perpignan and Montpelier where it would be met by Red Cross representatives. Preceding the milk train, the Sharps reached Marseilles in mid-July where Richard Allen, representative of the American Red Cross, facilitated the customs requirements by designating the milk an official Red Cross shipment. At that point, Waitstill and Martha divided responsibilities. Waitstill would return to Lisbon to set up the Unitarian rescue and relief center and Martha would stay in France to wait for the milk shipment and set about finding children who could emigrate.
Although Waitstill tried to arrange for more food to be sent from Lisbon to France, his efforts were unsuccessful. The British blockade, imposed immediately after the declaration of war against Germany, curtailed Red Cross and other relief shipments. In addition, AUA leaders, especially Robert Dexter, were completely supportive of the blockade, and gave no support to Waitstill’s efforts to bring relief supplies into France. He had more success, and more official AUA support, for his work in setting up an emigration service in Lisbon and linking it to the efforts of Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Formed in June 1940, the ERC’s mission was to rescue intellectual and political leaders trapped in southern France. Among those on the ERC’s list were noted physiologist Otto Meyerhof, the writers Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Heinrich Mann and his nephew, Gottfried Mann, son of the writer Thomas Mann. Fry came to Waitstill and members of other rescue and relief organizations operating in Lisbon at the time for information on how to carry out his mission. Waitstill gave him the lay of the bureaucratic land and other tips. In addition, he agreed that USC would be the Emergency Rescue Committee’s liaison in Lisbon, helping to maintain those who were able to get out of France and facilitating their passage to other places. This connection, which persisted throughout World War II, is one of the little known facts about USC’s early years. Waitstill made one more trip into France, coming back into Portugal with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger in September. By that time the Reverend Charles Joy had arrived to continue the work of the Lisbon office. Using Martha’s ticket, Feuchtwanger sailed for New York with Waitstill on September 28.
While Waitstill was in Lisbon, Martha and Helen Lowrie worked with midwives in towns around Pau to identify children under the age of two who would be most in need of the milk. On August 20, at a ceremony presided over by the mayor of Pau, they distributed a month’s worth of milk for about 800 children.
By that time, Martha had begun to gather children for the emigration project. The task would have defeated many of less energy and determination. The children needed medical certificates, vaccinations, photos and affidavits from relatives and financial guarantors. The governments of four countries required documents allowing entry into, exit from and passage through their borders. For twelve weeks, Martha dueled with bureaucrats, many of whom were uncooperative, some of whom were cruel, for the precious pieces of paper that, given the flow of history, would be lifesavers for those few lucky ones, especially for the 9 Jewish children in the group. Finally, on November 26 a convoy of 29 children and 9 adults left the railroad station in Marseilles for Spain, Lisbon, and, then, the United States. Martha sailed to New York in early December with two of the children and four of the adults. She was at the dock to welcome the rest when they arrived on December 23.
After returning home, Martha joined USC’s Board of Directors and lent the organization her considerable skills as a fundraiser. She continued her role as the minister’s right hand until 1944 when Waitstill left the Wellesley Hills Church for a position in Cairo with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). Martha returned to Portugal in February 1945 to run the Lisbon office following the abrupt resignation of its directors, Elisabeth and Robert Dexter. When she learned that Portuguese authorities had asked the new U.S. Ambassador to close USC’s office as a “friendly gesture to Portugal,” she sought ways to clarify the organization’s relationship with the Portuguese government, especially with the police who were arresting some of USC’s clients. She choreographed a delicate diplomatic ballet that brought cooperation from the head of the International Police allowing her time to find avenues of emigration in Venezuela and Mexico for Spanish Republican refugees who, by that time, were among the most numerous of USC clients.
At the end of her commitment in Lisbon, Martha visited Czechoslovakia to observe conditions in that country and how USC might help the reconstruction effort. She continued to raise funds for USC and for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization with which she was forming close ties. By December, however, the last in a series of what would now be called blatantly sexist slights by the USC leadership caused Martha to resign from the organization. She had endured them since her return from France in 1940 when her efforts to give substantial reports on her visits with Unitarians around the country were ignored by the leadership. Apparently, when five years later she experienced the same indifference she decided she’d had enough.
Her next challenge was a campaign to unseat incumbent Joe Martin for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She may well have lost anyway, but her chances of winning were completely eradicated when, in the last weeks of the campaign, she was smeared as a communist sympathizer because of her work with Spanish Republicans in Lisbon. Elected office never attracted her again, and for the next several years, she devoted her energies to the cause of Jewish refugee children. In 1943 she and two friends, Susan Herman and Frances Eliot Fremont-Smith, had founded Children to Palestine, an interfaith effort to benefit Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah, the organization that was bringing European Jewish refugee children to new homes in what was then Palestine. Martha had done a great deal of fundraising for Children to Palestine, an organization that Hadassah officers regarded as valuable as much for its positive impact on interfaith relations as for its financial benefits to Youth Aliyah.
In January 1947, Martha accepted Hadassah’s invitation to travel to Palestine for a tour of Youth Aliyah settlements, as a prelude to a three-month speaking campaign in the U.S. This was to be the first of four trips to the country, each one affirming her commitment to the new state which she envisioned as a binational one with Arabs and Jews sharing a peaceful and increasingly fertile land. Twice she stopped off in trouble spots on the way home to do undercover work for Jewish agencies. In 1948, she visited Morocco, where most Jews were living in squalor, and all were at the mercy of a capricious legal system. While the details of her visit have not been documented, she probably passed money to Jewish leaders who used it to facilitate the emigration process. The next year, she participated in the Israeli government’s ongoing efforts to document the condition of Iraq’s Jewish population, some 130,000 souls who, especially since the declaration of the Israeli state in 1947, had been subjected to great repression and who were not allowed to emigrate. On the rooftop of her hotel in Baghdad, Martha met secretly with Jewish representatives, carrying home their description of current conditions. These she passed on to an Israeli representative in New York. In 1951 Israel paid Iraq a large sum of money in return for a lifting of the ban on Jewish emigration. Nearly 124,000 of them left, the largest emigration of a single group to the new nation.
In 1950, Martha took a job in the Truman White House with the National Security Resources Board, a cold war creation designed to mobilize the nation’s resources—human and material—in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. She continued to fund raise for Hadassah. She resigned with the inauguration of the Eisenhower administration and returned to New York where she started a public relations business while maintaining her ties to Hadassah and Youth Aliyah. By that time, her marriage to Waitstill had failed. They both believed, into old age, that the separations endured in wartime service had frayed the marital bond beyond repair. Their shared legacy endures, however, in their works and in the lives they saved. Both of them later remarried.
- Roots and Visions: The First Fifty Years of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee by Ghanda Di Figlia (Cambridge: The Unitarian Universalist Service Commitee, 1990).
- Notable American Unitarians 1936-1961 edited by Herbert Vetter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Square Library, 2007).
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