Remembering Lotta on International Women’s Day

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!

David Rain

 

Remembering Lotta on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

“There’s only one thing: to work, so that their sacrifice may not be in vain.”

Lotta Hitschmanova grew up in a loving Jewish family in Prague. She was forced to flee in 1938, and after years wandering as a refugee in western Europe, she arrived penniless in Canada in 1942.

In the summer of 1945, she learned the devastating news that her beloved parents (Max and Else Hitschmann) had perished in the Holocaust.

Continue reading

Let’s put Lotta on a Stamp!

My sincere thanks go out to the more than 1,300 individuals who signed the “Let’s put Lotta on a Stamp” petition.

I have just written a letter to the Stamp Advisory Committee of Canada Post proposing that a commemorative stamp be made in honour of Lotta Hitschmanova.

I will keep readers updated on any developments, as soon as I learn of them myself.

Here is my letter:

It is my great pleasure to propose to you that a Canadian commemorative stamp be created in the name of Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, CC (1909-1990).

Here are a few of the reasons why I feel Dr. Lotta – as she affectionately came to be known – should be honoured in this way. Continue reading

36 Sokolska, Prague: another Lotta pilgrimage site?

36 Sokolska, PragueFor decades, visitors to Ottawa have paid homage to one of Canada’s best known addresses, 56 Sparks Street, made famous by Lotta Hitschmanova in her memorable TV and radio PSAs in the 60s and 70s.

But did you know that Lotta was born in Prague and that her family home – 36 Sokolska – is also a “pilgrimage” site? Continue reading

Remembering Auschwitz: How personal tragedy led to Lotta’s mission in life

Remembering Auschwitz: How personal tragedy led to Lotta’s mission in life

Millions of Canadians can still remember her heavily accented voice on those celebrated radio and TV ads in the 1960s and 70s: “This is Lotta Hitschmanova of the Unitarian Service Committee, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa 4.”

For generations, Lotta was Canada’s most beloved humanitarian, a constant voice of caring and compassion for those in need far away. But the deep-rooted inspiration for Lotta’s lifelong humanitarian mission is not so well known. Continue reading

Video: Sheryl-Elaine Brazeau tells Lotta’s story

Sheryl-Elaine’s Lotta story has been told in many settings. Her hope is that “it continues to inspire bold, passionate women everywhere.”

In the early 1970s, Sheryl-Elaine Brazeau held one of the most unique positions in all of Canadian society: she was Lotta Hitschmanova’s personal secretary at the office of USC Canada at one of Canada’s most celebrated addresses, 56 Sparks Street in Ottawa.

Four decades later, Sheryl-Elaine had developed her skills to become one of Ottawa’s gifted storytellers. One day, she decided to apply those skills in a unique way – to honour Dr Lotta by crafting an extended story with the title, “The Early Life of Lotta Hitschmanova.” Continue reading

Sharing a Lotta Story: “She loved to party”

Lotta in Ottawa, 1943.

Lotta Hitschmanova is revered by many as a kind of “saint”, but she was as human as the rest of us, had a great sense of humour, and apparently in her early days, loved to party!

Here is a Lotta story shared by Heather Haas Barclay of London, Ontario, as she recalls the remarkable personal connection her parents had with Lotta. Continue reading

Little known Lotta facts for a Friday: her unique name

Lotta was born in Prague on November 28, 1909. She was raised as “Lotta Hitschmann” by two loving Jewish parents, Max Hitschmann and Else Theiner.

With the rise of the Nazis and the Munich Pact of September 1938, Lotta, an outspoken critic of the Nazis, began her perilous four year journey as a refugee. She first found a point of refugee in Brussels, where her life as “Lotta Hitschmanova” began in 1939.

Here is what Clyde Sanger has written in his biography of Lotta (page 20): Continue reading

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.” Continue reading