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.