Hear Lotta’s voice again: “Development often starts with a woman. Support leadership programs for women through the USC, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa.”
March 8 is International Women’s Day, a time here in Canada to celebrate the achievements and lasting legacy of remarkable women like Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990), currently one of the eight nominees to appear on the new Canadian $5 bill.
Lotta’s story is heart-wrenching: Born in 1909, she grew up in a Jewish family in Prague. A journalist by profession, and an outspoken critic of the Nazis she had to flee her Czech homeland in 1938. For four years she was forced to wander about Europe, eventually finding her way to Marseilles, where she worked with refugee support groups.
She lost both parents in the Holocaust, and in 1942, after a 46-day voyage on a converted banana boat, she arrived penniless in Montreal – “with an unpronounceable name, [feeling] completely lost.”
In the depths of her personal tragedy, she could have given up. Instead, just three years later, in 1945, she founded the organization to whose humanitarian mission she would dedicate the rest of her life: the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada, now called SeedChange).
Something sparked her, deep inside. She was driven by an indefatigable energy to make the world a better place, and inspired thousands of Canadian supporters to join her in this crusade.
Half the year she was travelling. She personally visited all the USC programs overseas: first in post WWII Europe, then the middle East, Asia and in the 60s and 70s, newly-independent countries of Africa. And she made a gruelling, annual tour across Canada, to share stories with volunteers and donors on how the money was being spent overseas.
She had many nicknames, including the Soldier of Peace, for she always wore a distinctive army nurse’s style uniform wherever she went.
She was sometimes called the Atomic Mosquito. She never took “no” for an answer, and by her sincerity and the force of her personality, she was able to gain the support of people from all walks of life: homemakers, farmers, civil servants, newspaper publishers and even prime ministers.
Quite remarkably, as a refugee to Canada, Lotta became the most prominent woman of her generation! Her TV and radio PSAs in the 60s and 70s were legendary and made USC’s Ottawa office at 56 Sparks Street the best known address in the country.
But more than that, she pushed hard for women’s development around the world, decades before this became a common approach of international development agencies.
In particular, she felt strongly about young women and girls. Once their basic food, shelter and clothing needs were satisfied, Lotta and USC were at the forefront of ensuring that they were offered meaningful educational opportunities, skills training and leadership training.
She also mobilized and empowered a whole generation of Canadian women (including my own grandmother Mary Rain in Winnipeg), who joined her cause and indeed made it all possible, through the thousands of volunteer hours that they put in for USC.
Here is how Lotta’s biographer, Clyde Sanger, so aptly put it:
“Before many other agencies, [Dr. Lotta] was particularly concerned with the improvement of the position of women….
“I doubt that Dr. Lotta would ever have described herself as a feminist at any stage of her life….
“But it is intriguing that the staff she worked with in Ottawa for 25 years were all female, that most of the USC representatives she chose in Asia were women…and that a surprisingly high number of project leaders were also women.
“As well, the USC branches and working groups across Canada were mostly women, while men cheerfully headed for the background and basement where the packing cases were. It is not that men found it difficult to work with such a strong-willed ascetic woman….
“Rather, it seems to have been an instinctive desire on her part to bring out the leadership qualities she knew were in so many talented women she met, and an intuition that their ideas on human development would match her own.”
Thank you Lotta, for your inspirational and ground-breaking leadership, and Happy International Women’s Day!