KEENE, N.H. >> When Ken Burns screened clips of his latest documentary at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a fearful woman approached him and asked, "Is this going to happen to us again?"
The documentary, "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War," tells the story of a Wellesley, Mass., couple who rescued refugees and dissidents in Europe before and after the start of World War II. It airs on PBS on Tuesday, the day Democratic President Barack Obama and other world leaders host a summit aimed at securing new commitments to support today's refugees.
The parallels to today weren't lost on Burns, who co-directed the film with the couple's grandson Artemis Joukowsky.
"It's about sacrifice, and it's about cost," Burns said. "We live in a very narcissistic age, and people don't make those gestures, or at least we live in a media culture that does not isolate and focus on people who make these kinds of selfless gestures without the PR attached to it."
He added: "And it's about resonance, because we now find ourselves in a refugee crisis in the world that is only second to the second World War, and we've got to figure out what we're going to do and what kind of people we are. Are we going to be guided by fear and demagoguery, or are we going to be guided by compassion, love and sacrifice?"
The film explores the lives of Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha Sharp, who were asked by church leaders in 1939 to travel to Czechoslovakia to help people trying to escape Nazi persecution. The Sharps left their two young children at home, expecting to return in a few months. Instead, their mission lasted almost two years and involved harrowing encounters with Nazi police.
Together, the Sharps saved about 130 scientists, journalists, doctors and children. Several of those children, now grown, poignantly describe their experiences in the film.
Joukowsky said it was "almost a therapeutic process" for them to tell their stories.
"Most of us romanticize World War II ... as a victory of good over evil, but the truth is, for the people who were in it and were fighting and doing what the Sharps were doing, it was a terrible process of really acknowledging they couldn't rescue all the people they wanted to," Joukowsky said. "I think my grandparents at the end of their lives felt very confused and reluctant to praise themselves or talk about the good thing they had done."
Joukowsky grew up knowing little about his grandparents, who had divorced and remarried by the time he was born. It wasn't until after his grandmother's death in 1999 that he learned their remarkable story, in large part through the work of researchers connected to Keene State College.
The chair of Keene State's department of Holocaust and genocide studies, Paul Vincent, said he shares Burns' hope the film will be viewed with an eye toward current events.
"My students feel some solidarity with the victims of the Nazis: They abhor the perpetrators, but they don't deal well with bystanders," Vincent said. "It's a concept that to some degree forces us all to look in the mirror."