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

 

Angus Reid banknote survey – what happened to Lotta?

Yesterday, the Angus Reid Institute published survey results asking respondents which of the eight Bank of Canada nominees should appear on our next $5 banknote.

As I have suggested in an earlier article:

All eight are worthy nominees and should be honoured in different ways. That said, two candidates have so much in common that I feel they would make an “ideal couple” to grace our next $5 bill: Lotta Hitschmanova and Terry Fox.

It is no surprise that a high percentage of the Angus Reid survey respondents (57%) would like to see Terry Fox on the next $5 bill. It is, however, very surprising to learn that Lotta scored so very low (9%) on this survey, and even more surprising that “Quebec residents are also more likely than others to choose Lotta Hitschmanova.” Continue reading

Celebrating Lotta’s legion of loyal supporters: Gerry Brown (1919-2018)

“I remember a slight woman in an olive military suit who held the room spellbound.”

I was saddened recently to find out that Gerry Brown, a long-time fan and supporter of Dr Lotta Hitschmanova, had passed away in Winnipeg at the age of 98.

Gerry was one of USC Canada’s most dedicated volunteers and Board members. She first met Lotta in Vancouver in 1944, and decades later she joined USC’s legendary group of Winnipeg volunteers at Firehall #5.

Here is a biographical note that Gerry wrote in 2012.

David Rain Continue reading

Remembering a Soldier of Peace: Dr Lotta Hitschmanova

A wonderful new book has just been published: 150 Canadian Stories of Peace.

I am honoured that my story about Lotta Hitschmanova – “Remembering a Soldier of Peace“- has been included in this anthology, which was compiled by Gordon Breedyk, Mony Dojeiji, Koozma J. Tarasoff and Evelyn Voigt.


Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990) was a World War II refugee who made a lasting impact on her adopted country and acted as a Canadian ambassador for peace around the world.

Continue reading

Like Lotta, these Jewish refugees made a lasting impact on Canadian society

In a recent Ottawa Chamberfest lecture at the National Gallery of Canada, noted CBC radio host Robert Harris traced the lines of a remarkable story: how five Jewish World War II refugees each ended up playing key roles in the development of music in Canada.

In many ways, their story echoes the story of Dr Lotta Hitschmanova, also a Jewish refugee who left a lasting impact on the social and humanitarian landscape of her adopted country.

The five musical icons were Helmut Kallmann, Helmut Blume, Franz Kraemer, John Newmark and Walter Homburger. 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

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