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

 

Video: Bob Carty celebrating the life of Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova in Word and Song

“I never met Lotta, but I do remember 56 Sparks Street, I do remember that voice.”

In 2009, more than 50 events were held coast to coast to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-2009). In Ottawa, USC Canada (now SeedChange) organized a special “Lotta 100” event to honour their founder.

The M.C. for this event was Bob Carty (1950-2014), an award-winning CBC documentary producer and justice-seeking singer-songwriter.

As a tribute to Lotta during his introduction, Carty leads the audience in the singing of his haunting anthem of hope, “Desert Eyes.”

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Celebrating Lotta’s legion of loyal supporters: Georgina Margaret Brunette (1913-2019)

From the 1950s to 1970s, humanitarian Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova was arguably the most recognizable woman in Canada, a groundbreaking female leader and role model working in a male dominated society. It comes as no surprise, then, that so many of her supporters were exceptional women in their own rights, who identified with Lotta in so many ways. Margaret Brunette, a vibrant 97-year old Vancouverite when I met her in 2010, was one of these. 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

Little known Lotta facts for a Friday: you can play the piano in Lotta’s room!

Lotta’s room, “Hitschmanova”, in the Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Did you know there is a room named after Lotta in Vancouver? You can meet in “Hitschmanova”, or even play the piano there!

I learned this while giving a talk for USC Canada many years ago at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver at 49th & Oak.

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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

Was Lotta a feminist? Was she THE international development pioneer?

“Canada has a long-standing commitment to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in the developing world, particularly women and girls.” Justin Trudeau, Feb 4, 2018.

As we celebrate International Development Week (Feb 4 to 10, 2018), let’s give a thought to one of our pioneering women leaders, Lotta Hitschmanova, and the impact she had on her adopted country, Canada, through her humanitarian work during the 1940s to 1980s.

Quite remarkably, as a refugee, she became perhaps the most prominent Canadian woman of her generation. But more than that, she pushed hard for women’s development around the world, well before this became a key approach followed by international development agencies.

“Development often starts with a woman. Support leadership programs for women through the USC, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa.” Lotta Hitschmanova, 1978.

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Globe and Mail article: “In honour of Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova”

Photo credit: Dave Chan/Globe and Mail

Sincere thanks to Tu Thanh Ha for his excellent article in the Globe and Mail that features Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, her biographer Clyde Sanger, supporter Bruce Cockburn and myself.

 

He spent a decade in Tanzania, teaching, co-ordinating rural development projects and earning a master’s degree in development studies at the University of Dar es Salaam. “A lot of what Lotta said started to make sense to me,” he said.

It is nice to see the spotlight shone like this on a refugee to Canada who made such an important contribution to her adopted homeland and who connected her new society so deeply to the far corners of the globe.

My hope is that this article will stimulate many others to further explore this fascinating part of Canadian social history.

And of course, launching a campaign to have Lotta’s iconic image on a Canadian postage stamp is now front and centre for 2018!

David Rain

How to save Sparks Street – Part II – Let’s hear Lotta’s voice again!

The City of Ottawa wants your views on how to revitalize Sparks Street, Canada’s first pedestrian mall.

I’d like to add something new to what I wrote in a previous blog post, where I suggested building upon the only pre-existing “anchor” that already draws people from coast to coast to this narrow dark pedestrian mall – that anchor being Canada’s most iconic address, 56 Sparks Street, made famous by celebrated humanitarian, Lotta Hitschmanova, founder of the Unitarian Service Committee, USC Canada.

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