As the countdown begins for the September 20 air date of the latest Ken Burns PBS documentary, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, Boston-based Beacon Press is already going back to press for the eponymous companion volume by Artemis Joukowsky, who codirected and coproduced the film.
“This is starting to look like our biggest [tie-in] ever,” said Beacon director Helene Atwan. Demand for the Joukowsky book has significantly increased as the documentary, which is narrated by Tom Hanks, begins to gain momentum. Late last week Beacon learned that there will be a special White House screening of the 90-minute film, and that it will also be shown at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Both book and movie tell the story of Joukowsky’s grandparents, Reverend Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and his wife, Martha, a social worker. The pair left their two young children at home in Wellesley, Mass., and traveled to Prague to help political dissidents and Jewish refugees escape the Nazis on the eve of World War II. Among the people the Sharps rescued were Nobel laureate physicist Otto Meyerhof and writers Franz Werfel and Lion Feuchtwanger.
“The story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp is one of the most incredible tales of compassion, sacrifice and heroism that I have ever heard, and I was completely unaware of it until five years ago when Artemis Joukowsky first shared it with me,” said Burns, who wrote the foreword to the book.
Beacon will launch Defying the Nazis on September 6 with 10,000 copies in print after two trips to press. The press is working with DKC Public Relations, which is jointly promoting the book and the film. Atwan expects both to get major media coverage, ranging from TV plugs on shows like Morning Joe to print attention in papers like the Wall Street Journal. A number of other film screenings are also in the works, including ones at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie; New York’s 92nd Street Y; and Birmingham’s APTV station. Both Cinema Village in New York City and Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles are planning week-long runs of the film from September 9-15.
Atwan has known Joukowsky for many years and previously tried to sign a book he wrote about disability and sports, cowritten with Larry Rothstein. Instead Joukowsky, who was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, type III, when he was 14, self-published Raising the Bar in 2002. (The book features an introduction by Christopher Reeve.)
Defying the Nazis is a book that Joukowsky has wanted to write since he interviewed his grandmother, Martha Sharp, for a high school project about heroes. He spent decades researching her story, and his grandfather's. The film is told through their letters and journals.
“There’s an amazing hunger for stories of Americans who tried to fight Hitler,” said Atwan, who has wanted to publish the book since she first learned, years ago, that Joukowsky was writing it.
Aside from the book's central theme, what makes Defying the Nazis particularly appealing for Beacon is its link to Unitarian Universalism, since the press is a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association. A number of UU organizations support the Sharps’ legacy and are developing an outreach campaign for the book and film.