How did a Jewish refugee to Canada become a Unitarian “saint”? Part I

How did a World War II refugee, born into a Jewish family in Prague, Czechoslovakia, become a revered figure for Unitarians, a small liberal religious faith in Canada?

The following is a brief response to this question, taken from Clyde Sanger’s 1986 biography, “Lotta and the USC Story.”

It all started in 1941, in Marseilles, France, where Lotta had fled after three years of wandering western Europe following her narrow escape from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. She suffered from chilblains and loneliness, and her diet was primarily beetroot and carrots. One day, after queuing in the market, Lotta fainted in the street from fatigue and hunger.

She made her way to the medical clinic that had recently been established by the American Unitarian Service Committee, where she received treatment. It was her first contact with the USC.

lotta-youngAs Clyde Sanger put it, “By stages over the next four years, her collapse that lunch hour in the Marseilles street led to her life’s major work.”

In July 1942, Lotta joined hundreds of other refugees on a 2,400 ton banana boat that took 46-days to sail from Lisbon to New York, with stops in Casablanca, Bermuda and Mexico.

After arrival in New York, Lotta visited the USC headquarters in Boston, where she dropped off an important report on refugee malnutrition. She then found her way to Montreal, and two weeks later to Ottawa, where she lived for the rest of her life.

She worked as a postal censor, but was also very active in the Czechoslovakian refugee support movement. In 1944, Lotta sent a proposal for postwar relief work to Charles Joy, who had become executive director of the American USC in Boston.

In the first half of 1945, the American USC discussed the possibility of Lotta becoming their representative in Czechoslovakia, and began to encourage her to establish a Canadian branch of the USC.

At the same time, the congregations of six Unitarian churches in Canada – in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Vancouver – began discussing the establishment of a USC in Canada.

Then, on June 10, 1945, Lotta chaired the first meeting of an Ottawa Unitarian committee to discuss organizing a national committee.

On June 24, 1945, a second meeting was held, and the initial objectives agreed upon: “Relief of distressed people, especially children, in France and Czechoslovakia, and help in their rehabilitation.”

On August 30, 1945, the USC was officially recognized. The Canadian Registrar of the War Charities Act sent Lotta a Certificate of Registration, No. C-4036, for “The Unitarian Service Committee of Canada Fund.” Fundraising was limited at first to Unitarian members and supporters.

Then, on September 6, 1945, the American USC in Boston appointed Lotta as executive secretary for Canada. In February 1946, the fundraising limitation was removed and anyone (Unitarian or non-Unitarian) could contribute.

The links between the Canadian and American USCs were close during those early years, as Lotta’s salary was paid for by Boston, and the American USC also helped with the printing of ten thousand copies of the initial brochure.

Then in 1948, the ties between the two USCs were formally dissolved, as Clyde Sanger has put it, “without rancour”, and USC Canada’s life as an independent, non-sectarian agency began.

Stay tuned for Part II of the “Lotta Unitarian” story….

David Rain

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