CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — On the surface, Michal Spalter’s appearance at the recent Head of the Charles Regatta is a story of mastery, passion and grit, as she powered through a competitive race on a cold, blustery day last month that challenged rowers from around the globe.
The prestigious international race, held from October 20-21, boasted some 10,000 racers from 24 countries — from teens and students to senior masters and global Olympians including Dame Katherine Grainger from the United Kingdom. They were cheered on by an estimated 300,000 spectators who lined both banks of the Charles River from the Boston boating docks all the way upstream to Cambridge.
But beyond Spalter’s achievement at competing in the world-class event, is a poignant and unlikely story far from the rowing world of skulls and coxswains. It links her to a Unitarian minister and his wife who are among the few Americans recognized by Yad Vashem for their heroism in rescuing refugees during the Holocaust.
The story flows across continents, from Prague and France to Israel, Poland and Rhode Island — the headquarters of RESOLUTE Racing, the boat company founded by Michael (Micha) Joukowsky that supplied Spalter with a racing shell. RESOLUTE also supported the first-ever Israeli rowers at the 2014 race, the 50th anniversary of the Regatta.
“Without [RESOLUTE’s support], I would not have been able to come to Boston,” Spalter told The Times of Israel.
“It’s a huge milestone to compete here and to show yourself. I’m speechless about this regatta, just like I was last year,” said Spalter, who is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces, where she expects to receive her rank as Navy sergeant.
A life changed at Yad Vashem
Joukowsky’s passion for Israel was sparked on his first visit to the country 12 years ago when his grandparents were honored at Yad Vashem, a turning point in his life, he said.
“It was such an extraordinary experience,” he said, noting how honored his family felt. “This is where I began my love affair with Israel.”
RESOLUTE founder Joukowsky is the grandson of Waitstill Sharp, who was a Unitarian minister in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and his wife, Martha Sharp.
In 1939, the Sharps, who had two young children at the time, accepted a request from the Unitarian Service Committee to travel to Prague to rescue refugees. After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, they continued their high-risk service from Lisbon and later France.
Remarkably, Joukowsky, his older brother, and sister were in the dark about their grandparents’ role rescuing refugees and their grandmother’s later work resettling children in Palestine.
“My grandparents never spoke about it,” Joukowsky recalled, saying they downplayed their roles.
The first glimpse into their extraordinary story emerged around 1979, when Joukowsky’s grandmother dictated her memoir to him. He was incredulous, he said, and asked his mother, who confirmed the accounts.
Decades later, in a June 2006 ceremony at Yad Vashem, the American couple was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for their work during the Holocaust, including rescuing Lion Feuchtwanger, a world famous German-Jewish author and his wife. They also arranged risky rescues of Jewish and non-Jewish children and others. They are among only five other Americans bestowed this recognition by Yad Vashem.
The grandparents’ little-known story is told in the recent film, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” directed by Ken Burns, the award winning documentary filmmaker and produced by Artemis Joukowsky III, Michael’s older brother.
In a phone conversation, Joukowsky said he grew up in a globally-engaged family. His father was an international businessman with expertise in the former Soviet Union. His mother, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, is a renowned Near Eastern archeologist and retired professor at Brown University.
His grandparents, who divorced after the war, believed they weren’t heroes, Joukowsky said. “They honestly believed anyone would have done what they did.”
Martha Sharp, who later ran for US Congress, remarried a Jewish man and supported Israeli causes including Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Joukowsky said.
While humble about their rescue work, Joukowsky said that from his earliest childhood, his grandparents did instill a deep sense of doing good in the world and the importance of leaving one’s mark.
“Every birthday, we were asked the same question: ‘What great thing are you going to do?” he said.
No immediate answer was expected. It was more of a thought-provoking directive, he said, the standard by which to measure one’s life goals and achievements.
For Joukowsky, supporting the nation’s rowers in the race brings his grandparents’ legacy full circle and it is a chance to expose Americans to Israelis outside of the realm of politics, he said.
Finding serenity in the ‘perfect stroke’
Spalter’s devotion to rowing began as a young teen when she first met her coach, Robert Nuckowski, who is Polish. Both of Spalter’s parents are Polish and she speaks the language.
“I like the serenity of when I do the perfect stroke,” she told The Times of Israel before the race. “I feel the boat is flowing and I feel the water rushing at my side. You really feel this calmness.”
But Spalter’s emotions ran high soon after finishing this most recent race in October. She expressed both a sense of accomplishment and disappointment with her performance at just her second outing at the three-mile competition.
She had hoped to achieve a higher ranking relative to the other competitors. Spalter came in 21st of the 22 women, under weather and water conditions rough enough earlier in the day to tip some racers from their boats. “I didn’t finish last,” she said with a small laugh.
Shivering in the cold wind, Spalter recognized that by finishing the winding course in just over 24 minutes, she bested her time from last year.
Nuckowski, Spalter’s coach and an accomplished rower who trains young rowers in both Israel and Poland, viewed her performance through the lens of a seasoned teacher.
“Her time was really good,” he said, a sentiment backed by Jeff Sturgis, the CEO of RESOLUTE who competed in his 15th race this year. “Michal should be pleased with her performance,” in what is a very competitive race category.
The conditions were especially rough for rowers not accustomed to racing in such weather, concurred Ilana Zieff, a Boston-area rower who competed in the same race as Spalter. The two women first met at the 2017 Maccabiah games in Israel, said Zieff, who was pleased with her sixth place finish. But, the weather favored racers accustomed to navigating the Charles under harsh conditions, she said.
For rowers from countries like Israel who are developing their program, the chance to come to Boston is where it’s at, according to Shira Springer, the sports and society reporter for public radio station WBUR in Boston and a columnist for the Boston Globe. Springer wrote about Israel’s first time participation in the Head of the Charles.
“If you are serious about this, it’s the place to be and to improve,” she told The Times of Israel by phone.
Last year, when Spalter competed here for the first time, she learned the story behind RESOLUTE’s enthusiastic backing of Israeli rowing.
It was through business contacts with Avi Nevel, an Israeli-born Rhode Island-based businessman, that Joukowsky began to support Israeli rowing.
Joukowsky and Nevel, who founded the nonprofit Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative, have traveled together to Israel, where Joukowsky takes great pride supporting para-rowers with new adaptive rowing technologies pioneered by RESOLUTE. They also visited Yad Vashem together.
Joukowski’s devotion to his grandparents bravery struck a deep chord with Spalter.
At a time when there are so many refugees around the world, Joukowsky “is trying to keep the humane part in all of it,” she said.
Some may think his helping Israeli rowers is a small thing, she reflected, “But this has a huge impact… his contribution makes it so somebody will have it better.”
As for future plans for Spalter’s return to the Head of the Charles, coach Nuckowski is upbeat. Spalter and other Israeli rowers will train with him again this winter at the Olympic center in Poland, and he’s looking ahead to next year’s race when he hopes Spalter will return along with other Israeli rowers.
“She will have her best race,” he predicted.