Saviors and Trailblazers

The American Women Who Risked It All to Save Jews During the Holocaust

Scores of women, most of them Unitarians and Quakers, crossed the Atlantic to rescue Jews and chart their own course.

As Americans based in Europe were fleeing in one direction, these women headed in the other.

Often putting themselves in the line of fire, they left behind friends and family and set out across the sea to war-torn Europe in a bid to save any Jews they could. Sometimes this involved setting up soup kitchens to feed famished refugees, or providing Jewish children with escape routes to freedom.

Their stories are the focus of a new research project by historian Deborah Dwork on American efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

“Historians have tended to focus a lot on the aid and rescue networks within Europe,” says Dwork, director of the Strassler Center on Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “But what I wanted to know is what in the world prompted these Americans to jump over the Atlantic? Who were these women? Why did they do what they did, and how did it change them?”

Dwork is the author of “Children with a Star,” the first comprehensive study of Jewish children during the Holocaust. It was her work with child survivors, many of them rescued by these women, that made her aware of these trailblazers, Dwork says.

The project, entitled “Saints and Liars” and still in the research phase, documents the stories of nearly 100 Americans actively involved in rescue efforts in Europe and elsewhere during World War II. Most of her subjects are women, the vast majority Unitarians and Quakers.

“I do not ignore the men, but it is definitely the women who were taking on new roles here,” Dwork notes. “The conditions of war opened up a much broader scope of possibilities for women.”

Such was the case of perhaps the best-known woman in this group, Martha Sharp, the wife of a Unitarian minister from the Boston area. She was the first American woman to be recognized by Yad Vashem as a member of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Like several others featured in the project, Sharp was a trained social worker. “At the time, this was a very socially accepted field for women to pursue, but it allowed women like her to chart their own course,” Dwork says.

In February 1939, Sharp and her husband Waitstill left behind their two young children and headed to Prague, just a few weeks before the Germans moved in.

“They went initially to provide help to the refugees pouring in from the Sudetenland, but they quickly realized that the only way to really help them was to try to get those refugees most at risk out of there,” Dwork recounts. “Ultimately, Martha herself organized a group of 35 refugees and helped them escape to Britain. After that, she personally accompanied another group of children to Britain.”

Helping save Feuchtwanger

In 1940, Sharp moved to Lisbon, which was neutral territory, to engage in other rescue activities. Eventually, she made her way to Nazi-controlled France, where she played a key role in a scheme to help Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife escape to the United States via Spain.

In 1950, she divorced her husband, married a wealthy Jewish businessman and became a spokeswoman for the Hadassah women’s organization. She also played a big role, according to Dwork, in bringing Iraqi Jews to safety after Israel was established in 1948.

Marjorie McClelland, another social worker, was a Quaker who volunteered to offer assistance in the transit camps where Jews and Spanish Republicans were incarcerated in Vichy France. At one camp, 3,200 Jewish children were being held.

“She understood that the best way to help these children was to get them as quickly as possible out of there,” Dwork says. That year, McClelland helped organize five convoys of children who were whisked out of France to the United States via Lisbon.

A prominent Jewish woman whose story also came to Dwork’s attention was Turkish-born Laura Margolis, who moved with her family to Dayton, Ohio, when she was 5. She later became the first woman sent overseas by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In 1939, Margolis was dispatched to Cuba, where she worked with Jewish refugees pouring in from Europe and also happened to be present when the St. Louis ocean liner with Jewish refugees was denied entry.

In 1941, just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Margolis was sent to Shanghai. “At that point, there were about 20,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and the JDC helped about 15,000 of them survive the war, because had it not been for the JDC, they would probably all have died of starvation,” Dwork says.

Margolis was incarcerated by the Japanese and later released in a prisoner exchange. After a short stint back in the United States, she was ready for more action and returned to Europe, where she took part in rescue activities in Lisbon and later in aid work with Holocaust survivors in the liberated areas.

According to Dwork, “In an interview, she was once asked what motivated her to travel to all these places, and her answer was, ‘well, obviously I was looking for a husband.’” At the age of 47, Margolis finally settled down and married a French Jew.

“I believe that while she married at the age of 47, she didn’t just have sex for the first time at the age of 47. I do believe that she embarked upon her work motivated by ethical principles, like the rest of these women did,” Dwork says.

“But it also provided them with adventure and an opportunity to break through barriers. These independent lives also offered women like her an opportunity to express themselves sexually that they never would have had had they stayed at home.”

Courtesy USHMM and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee