Guardian Angel

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Martha Dickie Sharp Cogan ’26, whom a reporter once hailed, along with her first husband, as “the guardian angels of European children” during World War II, died Dec. 6 at the age of ninety-four. She  lived in Providence.

Cogan and the late Rev. Waitstill Hastings Sharp arrived in Prague  in 1939, three weeks ahead of the German army, and set about establishing  maternity hospitals for refugees and homes for displaced workers.  Working under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Service  Committee, which the Sharps helped found, they sent thousands  of children to summer camps where they could receive medical and  dental care, and helped Jews and political refugees escape Nazi  terror. Cogan also led a group of thirty-five to safety in England  and set up an office through which more than 3,500 families emigrated  around the world. When the Nazis bolted the doors to all foreign  refugee offices on July 25, 1939, Cogan was the only worker to  remain. She stayed until she learned her arrest was imminent.

In 1940, Cogan returned to Europe – this time to the south of  France – to organize a project to bring milk to hungry babies,  and to free intellectuals and political activists detained in  Nazi internment camps.

The U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children asked Cogan  in 1940 to arrange the first World War II transport of European  and Russian children to the United States. Cogan not only coordinated  the journey for twenty-seven children and ten adults, she also  traveled with them by ship and went on to organize many more transports. “Parents,” she wrote in 1941, “described the difficulty of finding  enough food for the children, and begged us to take them to a  land where they would be adequately nourished, where they would  be warm and sheltered, and where the schools would be free of  Nazi ideology.”

Cogan next worked in Spain and Portugal as director of the Unitarian  Universalist Service Committee. There she gave food and clothing  to hundreds of refugees living in prisons and displaced-person  camps. In Lisbon, she also helped to smuggle out of Europe many  people targeted by the Nazis.

Cogan continued her public service after the war. She once entered  Iraq on a secret mission to learn about the persecution of Jews  in that country, a trip that led to the release of thousands of  Jews from Baghdad jails. In 1946 she was the Democratic candidate  for U.S. Congress in a close but unsuccessful race against then-House  speaker Joseph W. Martin of Massachusetts. Four years later, she  joined the Truman administration as special assistant to the chairman  of the National Security Resources Board, at the same time serving  as associate director of civil defense. She later became director  of President Truman’s advisory committee on mobilization policy,  which formulated plans for mobilizing women and children in case  of nuclear attack. She was also a consultant to the defense department.

Cogan raised money for Hadassah’s Youth Aliyah Rescue, a program  that sent orphaned Jewish children to Israel after World War II.  On one mission for that program, a sniper in Jerusalem fired a  bullet at her that passed harmlessly through her hat. Cogan also  founded a similar group, Children to Palestine, which continued  the work of bringing orphaned Jewish children to Israel.

The governments of Czechoslovakia, Portugal, and France recognized  Cogan for her World War II service, and Hadassah engraved her  name in its Golden Book. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee  declared in 1990, “Mrs. Cogan’s name will always be associated  with the most basic values of dignity, love of freedom, and humanitarianism  that inspire our work.”

Cogan died on December 6, 1999, at the age of 94. She was living in Providence at the time, where her daughter, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Martha Sharp Joukowsky ’58 also lives with her husband, Chancellor Emeritus Artemis A.W. Joukowsky ’55. 

Cogan is survived by a daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky ’58, 79 Prospect St., Providence 02906; a son; and three grandchildren,  including Michael Joukowsky ’87.

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January / February 2005