Martha Sharp

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Martha Sharp
Born Martha Ingham Dickie
April 25, 1905
Providence, Rhode Island [1][2]
Died 1999
Providence, Rhode Island [3]
Nationality American
Alma mater Pembroke College in Brown University (B.A,, Philosophy)
Northwestern University (Social Work)
Radcliffe College (M.A., Literature) [4]
Occupation social worker, humanitarian
Known for rescue of children in World War II Europe
Spouse(s) Waitstill Sharp (1927-1954)
David H. Cogan ((m. 2015) 1957)
Parent(s) James Edward Ingham
Elizabeth Alice Whelan [2]

Martha Ingham Dickie Sharp-Cogan (1905–1999) was an American philanthropist who, along with her husband Waitstill Sharp, helped hundreds of Jews to escape Nazi persecution by sending them off through Czechoslovakia.

Early life and career[edit]

Martha Ingham Dickie was born to English immigrants to America, James Edward Ingham and Elizabeth Alice Whelan, in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 25, 1905. Her parents had an unhappy marriage and her mother had a medical condition which hampered her ability to raise her children. As a result, Martha was adopted and raised by relatives.[4]

She graduated from Pembroke College, the women's college of Brown University, in 1926 and later studied in the field of Social Work at Northwestern University’s Recreation Training School centered in Hull House, a Chicago settlement. When her training was complete, she earned the position Director of Girls’ Work where she acted as social worker to over 500 girls. Her devotion to service and helping others is often cited as the reason she entered the field.


In 1927, she married Waitstill Hastings Sharp, taking temporary leave from her work, although she would never return to the social work profession.

Soon after their marriage, in 1928 Waitstill Sharp enrolled in a master’s program at Harvard Divinity School and Martha went on to do a master's degree in literature at Radcliffe College.[2]

When Waitstill was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1933, he was assigned to a small church in Meadville, Pennsylvania where his wife followed. She acted almost as a second minister, organizing most of the youth work, education activities, and women's meetings, as well as church suppers. As her husband was often difficult to talk to, church members would go to Martha, who was always happy to lend an ear.[1]

In 1937 the couple and their family settled in Wellesley, Massachusetts where Waitstill was minister of the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Church.[2][4]

Foreign Affairs[edit]

Watching the events of early-World War II unfold in Europe, she and her husband started an "International Relations Club". In November 1938, following the Munich Pact which ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler, the Sharps led a discussion titled "The Rape of Czechoslovakia."

Dr. Robert Dexter, head of the Department of Social Relations for the Executive Committee of the AUA, along with Quaker representative Richard Wood traveled to Europe to start contacts in Geneva, London and Paris, to create a network of relief workers and sympathetic politicians. In November 1938, they sent back a report that over 20,000 people would need immediate emigration assistance. Under Dexter's leadership, a temporary committee was formed to help endangered refugees and in May 1940, the organization was official founded as the Unitarian Service Committee.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp were recruited to work in Czechoslovakia, where a large community of Unitarians were present under the leadership of Norbert Capek. Later Martha and Waitstill recalled grave misgivings about leaving their children of seven and two, but they were convinced they would be well taken care of living with family friends inside the parsonage. Their church would be headed by Everett Baker in their absence, and they headed for London on 4 February 1939. On 14 March 1939, the Nazis were quickly advancing on Prague, but the Sharps decided to remain and continue their program, which was the most significant private American effort on behalf of endangered refugees in Czechoslovakia. In Prague, the Sharps worked closely with members of the American Friends Service Committee to advance refugees' visa applications to Great Britain and elsewhere. Along with Waitstill, Martha administered a relief program after seeking advice from Alice Masaryk and other prominent Czechs.[4] On one occasion, Martha Sharp escorted 35 refugees, ranging from politicians to children whose parents had committed suicide, to Great Britain. On a different occasion, she arranged for children to leave in accordance with local narrowing-law, by the "Care of Children from Germany", a British organization. In the summer, the Gestapo, closed their offices, but Martha continued until August, and stopped only after learning that she faced arrest.

In May 1940, the president of the A.U.A., Frederick Eliot and USC's director, Robert Dexter asked Martha and Waitstill to go to France as their "ambassadors extraordinary", to which the Sharps agreed again. The plan for a Paris office was canceled because France surrendered to the Nazis that spring. Instead, the Sharps set up an office in Lisbon in neutral Portugal.

From their base in Lisbon, Martha and Waitstill were able to help a number of Jewish children and several prominent Jewish intellectuals to escape Vichy France, including the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger. Working with Donald Lowrie of the World YMCA, Martha also provided assistance to the families of Czech soldiers who were stranded in France and were hoping to use a sea route for escape. At the end of her 1940 posting in Europe, Martha escorted 27 children and 10 adults to America.[4]

In 1943, Martha founded "Children to Palestine," with support from the Jewish women's organization Hadassah. In this new role, Martha raised money for orphaned Jewish youth in Europe to start new lives in Palestine. In 1944, Martha returned to Lisbon, assuming the position of Associate European Director of the Unitarian Service Committee. In that capacity, she successfully negotiated the release of a number of Spanish refugees imprisoned in Portugal.

Post World War II[edit]

In 1950, Martha accepted a position in the National Security Resources Board, which would mobilize resources in the event of a Soviet attack. She resigned as President Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated, and moved back to New York. By then, her marriage with Waitstill had degraded, and the two mutually separated, believing the hardships they'd gone through during World War II were just too much. She eventually remarried, and took the name Cogan.

Martha Sharp died in 1999, at the age of 94. She is survived by her daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, a retired Brown University archaeology professor.

In the summer of 2006, Martha's and Waitstill's names were added to the list of "Righteous Among the Nations", a wall in Israel for Gentiles who risked their own lives in helping as many escape the Holocaust as they could. Eva Feigl gave a speech in 2005, describing how she never forgot Martha Sharp when they got to America, the day she saw freedom.

In 2010, the University of Nebraska Press published a scholarly book about the activities of the Unitarian Service Committee in Europe during World War II. The book relates how colleagues, including Unitarian Minister Charles Joy, and writer Varian Fry eventually built up a large-scale and effective rescue program, after the Sharps' well-meaning but timid and small-scale efforts.

In 2012, Artemis Joukowsky III, one of the Sharps' grandchildren, directed and produced a documentary movie on the Sharps, called "Two Who Dared".[5]


  1. ^ a b Di Figlia, Ghanda, "Notable American Unitarians: MARTHA SHARP COGAN and WAITSTILL HASTINGS SHARP: UNITARIAN SERVICE COMMITTEE PIONEERS", Harvard Square Library
  2. ^ a b c d Cf. "GUIDE Martha and Waitstill Sharp Collection, ca. 1905-2005", United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  3. ^ Gold, Emily, "Obituary: Guardian Angel Martha Dickie Sharp Cogan '26" at the Wayback Machine (archived February 26, 2006), Brown University Alumni Magazine, May/June 2000 (archived 2006)
  4. ^ a b c d e Subak, Susan Elisabeth, Rescue and Flight: American Relief Workers who Defied the Nazis, University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
  5. ^ "Martha and Waitstill Sharp: A Timeline of their Lives", Two Who Dared, film website

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]