It was a great escape

It was a great escape

SAVOY — Peter Braunfeld had never heard of the Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp until he received an unusual phone call seven years ago.

It was only after that conversation with a documentary filmmaker and a peek into his father’s belongings that the University of Illinois emeritus professor of mathematics learned the Massachusetts couple helped hundreds of Jews and political dissidents escape Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust on the eve of World War II.

Braunfeld’s family was among them.

The couple — a Unitarian minister and his social worker wife — are the subject of a new documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” which airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.

It was co-directed by Ken Burns, the two-time Oscar nominee, and Artemis Joukowsky, the Sharps’ grandson. It features Tom Hanks, as the voice of Waitstill Sharp, and interviews with Braunfeld and other survivors.

Told mostly through the Sharps’ handwritten letters and journal entries and witness accounts, the 90-minute film tells the untold story of the couple who left their children in the care of their parish to take multiple, life-threatening missions to help renowned Jewish scientists, doctors, journalists, children and powerful anti-Nazi activists flee the expanding Nazi occupation across Europe. Their work was supposed to take a few months, but lasted two years.

A native of Vienna, Braunfeld along with his parents — Fritz and Johanna Braunfeld — emigrated to the United States when he was 8. He moved to the Champaign area in 1952 when he started graduate school at the University of Illinois, where he worked for 50 years.

Now 85, he lives in Savoy with his wife, Judy. He has two sons, three stepchildren, and together, the couple have 10 grandkids and five great-grandkids.

Braunfeld was at home when the unexpected call came.

“Are you Peter Braunfeld, and do you, by chance, know a Fritz Braunfeld?” he recalled a woman asking.

When Braunfeld answered “yes” and that Fritz was his father, the woman told him about the Sharps and the film she was directing. She wanted to interview him for the project.

Braunfeld was skeptical at first.

“I had never heard of the Sharps, and I don’t ever recall my family talking about the Sharps,” he said, recalling his father saying the Quakers helped them flee Prague a few weeks before World War II started.

“I found to my great amazement, going through my father’s things, a piece of paper with his handwriting. It was a form. It had my father’s passport number and a note with Waitstill Sharp’s name. It asked questions like, Where were you born? Do you have a sponsor in the U.S? It proves my father did, indeed, have a relationship with the Sharps.”

Joukowsky said many of the survivors hadn’t heard of his grandparents either.

But “documents never lie,” said Joukowsky, who after his grandmother’s death discovered 14 boxes filled with different papers — the ones they didn’t destroy when the Nazis were bearing down on them.
Filmmakers, with help from the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., made a list of names and used private detectives and internet searches to track them down. Of the 400 names on the list, they found roughly 30.

“Peter was quite surprised to hear from us,” Joukowsky recalled with a laugh in an interview from his home in Sherborne, Mass. “His father had told him the Quakers had helped them, and they very well could have played a role. The Unitarians and the Quakers were part of an underground network of organizations that worked together and all had their job to get people out. But from the Sharps’ documents, it was clear they were involved. There was a lengthy affidavit from Peter’s father telling his family’s story.”

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Braunfeld’s story began in Vienna, his home until he was 7. His father was a successful lawyer, and his mother, a trained French teacher, helped her husband in his practice.

Braunfeld enjoyed school. He also enjoyed skiing and skating lessons in the winter and swimming and French lessons in the summer.

Life changed after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, in March 1938. Braunfeld remembers seeing a swastika on his report card and sign at the park where he played with friends, ”Jews not welcome.” His mother warned him to keep a low profile and not get into a fight with any “Aryan” boys.

Businesses and professional offices, including his orthodontist, shut their doors to Jews. His nanny, who was very dear to him, was forced to leave. He saw Jews forced to scrub sidewalks and others hustled away by Nazi officers.

One day, Braunfeld heard thunderous cheers and applause when Hitler spoke at a large rally at City Hall, not far from his apartment. He also heard his parents’ whispers: “So-and-so was sent to Dachau.”

“I knew it wasn’t a good place to be,” he said.

He could sense his parents’ anxiety. In July, they packed up much of their belongings and headed north to Fritz’s hometown of Brno, Czechoslovakia, where they thought they would stay a year or so until the occupation blew over. Following the Munich Agreement in September, the family packed up again and took a night train to Prague, where they had other relatives.

There, things went from bad to worse. More people they knew disappeared. One day while he and his mother were visiting friends, the Gestapo came and arrested their hosts. They also arrested his mother and ordered him to go home.

His father made frantic calls to various “Aryan” lawyers. To their relief, his mother returned the next morning. She recalled waiting for hours, then being interrogated.

“She figured this was the end,” Braunfeld said.

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Fritz Braunfeld worked desperately to get his family out of Prague. Fearing it would take too long to secure American visas, he obtained visas to Chile. The family was set to go until Peter came down with the measles. By the time he recovered, the visas had expired.

The family got permission to go to Great Britain on the condition they would leave for the U.S. as soon as they obtained American visas. But they weren’t sure how they would get there. They were granted exit visas from Vienna on the condition they would “never defile German soil again.” They wanted to fly but learned Jews were no longer allowed to.

Finally in late July 1939, a few weeks before World War II, they got passage on a train that would take them to the Dutch border by way of Germany. When they got to Dresden at 2 a.m., SS men ordered the passengers off the train. They separated the men and the women.

“We didn’t know if we’d see each other again,” Braunfeld recalled.

They eventually let everyone reboard and go on their way, but not before confiscating Fritz’s wedding band. The family settled into their compartment, only to have an SS officer enter and sit down beside them, which made for a nerve-wracking six-hour ride to Holland.

The Braunfelds arrived in England with 10 marks and a suitcase. They shipped some of the belongings they’d managed to hold on to, including Peter’s hobby horse, to the U.S., but they never saw those items again.

Soon, Great Britain entered the war, and Braunfeld and other children were evacuated to a village near the Scotland border. He eventually was reunited with his mother. But the country’s leaders decided to intern men holding a German passport, so his father was sent to an internment camp.

Their American visas finally arrived in July 1940. At the harbor, Braunfeld and his mother waited anxiously for Fritz, who arrived 45 minutes before their ship launched. They had to wear heavy life jackets made of cork the entire trip in case they were torpedoed by a German U-boat. They were relieved when they finally steamed into the New York harbor and past the Statue of Liberty.

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The Braunfelds settled in Chicago. Fritz attended law school again, then practiced and taught at John Marshall Law School. Johanna taught French and German at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“I stand in awe of what my parents were able to do. ... They left everything near and dear to them — family, their culture, language. And they somehow managed to start new lives,” said Braunfeld, whose many relatives were killed in a concentration camp. His maternal grandparents are believed to have died in a train car going from Theresienstadt to Treblinka.

Braunfeld decided not to follow Fritz into the law after he saw what happened to his father’s career when they came to the U.S.

“I grew up ... with a sense the world was a very unsettled place, and who knows what it will bring,” said Braunfeld, who earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the UI and was a professor of mathematics and education. He chose that field “because it was safe and not political ... and I could do it anywhere in the world.”

Braunfeld stayed put at Illinois, where he helped create the PLATO computer-based teaching system, served as the chief author of a math text for challenged seventh-graders and developed and taught 50-plus professional development programs, among other things.

In 1968, he returned to Germany when he won a Fulbright grant to study the country’s mathematics education system. Before he left, the country awarded him the Alexander von Humboldt prize for distinguished achievements by a foreign scientist.

“If they hadn’t kicked me out as a child, they could have saved the ‘foreign’ adjective,” he said, noting the irony.

Since then, Braunfeld has made a number of trips to Vienna, Prague and Brno with his wife; two sons, Kenneth and David; and other relatives. He made sure to take a picture of himself — and later ones with his sons and grandkids — on the balcony of his apartment in Vienna, on which he played as a child, as a gesture of triumph over the Third Reich.

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Prior to participating in the film, Braunfeld gave a lengthy testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg to videotape and preserve interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. But aside from that and speaking to his grandchildren’s classes when they studied the Holocaust, he rarely spoke publicly about his experience.

“I didn’t want to be known as Peter Braunfeld, the Holocaust survivor,” he said, explaining he felt as though his story was “quite peripheral.”

While his family faced discrimination and was displaced, “I was never in a camp,” he said. “But I realized there were a lot of things that happened short of putting people in gas chambers that are important in the whole spectrum of what happened, and those stories also have to be told.”

Braunfeld was happy to help tell the Sharps’ story.

“They were heroes,” he said, pointing out that in 2006, Israel awarded one of its highest honors, “Righteous Among the Nations,” to the couple. Of the 25,271 recipients, it’s only been given to five Americans — all of whom risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Braunfeld applauded the film, which he’s seen at screenings he’s spoken at. Last weekend, he and Judy attended a White House conference on refugees and a dinner at the Holocaust museum, where he got to meet five others in the film.

“I have no extended family at all,” Braunfeld said, adding they either died or relocated to another country. “So, the (gathering) felt like a family reunion. These are the people who understand exactly where I came from.”

Joukowsky said the survivors put a human face on the tragedy of the Holocaust and war.

“Ken Burns has a beautiful way of telling stories through individual narratives and then connecting them to the larger, historical context. In the film, Peter explains not only who he is but also the story of anti-Semitism. What was exciting about Peter ... he was very curious himself. He’s an amazing storyteller himself. It made telling his story very fun.

“We’ve become dear friends. We’re all linked in this very intimate way to a story that we’re still searching for the answers to — not only the story of the Sharps, but the survival of the Braunfelds and the other families.”

The director said the film shows that history is always present.

“What we’re talking about is very important today,” Joukowsky said, pointing to refugee crises across the globe. “It helps us to see that history repeats itself and that our lessons have to be learned by each generation.”

He hopes the film causes viewers to ask themselves, “What would I have done then and today, and what will I do today?”

Braunfeld hopes they ask those questions and are inspired by the Sharps.

“I don’t think many of us are cut out to be the Sharps,” he said. “But if they could do what they did, what can we do? We don’t have to go to some horrible place, but we can be involved politically. We can help those who need help. We can speak out. All of those things, I don’t think we do enough.”

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pattsi wrote on September 18, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Such fun knowing a local movie star.

Esteve wrote on September 20, 2016 at 2:09 am

My mother read to Johanna Braunfeld when she lost her sight. I met her a few times and thought she was lovely. I think her gravestone is visible from Pennsylvania Ave. Anyway, I always smile at it when I pass.