From the 1940s to the 1970s, Lotta Hitschmanova was perhaps the most famous Canadian woman. And yet, few today are aware of her personal story — that she was a Jewish refugee to Canada who in turn spent decades helping Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria.
[NB: the Middle East photos in this article were all taken by Lotta’s photographer friend, John Buss, and were published in 1970 in “The USC Story: A Quarter Century of Loving Service by the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, 1945-1970.”]
Amidst the horrors of the unimaginable death and destruction in Israel and Palestine, and the grieving and the fear, and the anger and the hatred, I find myself reaching out for the spirit of one of Canada’s most beloved humanitarians, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990).
Why turn to Lotta, you say? She’s been dead for three decades. What could she possibly offer us today in these troubled times?
The answer lies in her own personal history, which was filled with heart-wrenching tragedy, despair and hopelessness. And we have to ask: how did Lotta manage to overcome her own feelings of grief, fear and anger? And how could she manage to channel these very same emotions, away from hatred, and towards compassion, kindness and love for all peoples around the world, and especially the Middle East?
From the 1940s to the 1970s, Lotta was perhaps the most famous Canadian woman. And yet, few today are aware of her personal story — that she was a Jewish refugee to Canada who in turn spent decades helping Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria.
Here is her story.
As a young woman in the 1930s, Lotta was a Jewish journalist in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and an outspoken critic of the Nazis. In 1938, she had to flee for her life and for the next 4 years she was forced to wander about Europe as a refugee. It was during this time that she changed her last name from Hitschmann to its Slavic version, Hitschmanova, as a patriotic move against the Nazis.
Lotta eventually ended up in Marseilles, where she worked with refugee support groups — a refugee helping refugees. Then, in 1942, after an arduous 46-day voyage aboard a converted banana boat, she arrived penniless in Canada – “with an unpronounceable name” as she put it, feeling completely lost.
Three years later, in July 1945, Lotta heard the devastating news that both her parents had perished in the Holocaust. She wrote to a friend:
“I have lost the beings who are most dear to me.”
A month later, while still in deep despair, she founded the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC Canada) and devoted the rest of her life to its humanitarian mission of peace.
“There’s only one thing: to work, so that their sacrifice may not be in vain.”
Wearing her distinctive uniform everywhere, Lotta was known as a “Soldier of Peace”, and fearlessly took USC support programs to the most challenging of post-conflict zones, including post WWII Europe, Korea, Bangladesh, and both South and North Vietnam.
In 1956, she started USC’s first humanitarian aid program in Gaza, and in 1970 a program in the West Bank. These programs continued until 1975.
As her biographer Clyde Sanger relates, Lotta pushed for the opening of USC’s Middle East program in spite of considerable resistance.
“It was a program, that from the outset in 1956, caused debate and even controversy amongst the agency’s supporters. There were board members who were worried about its political overtones….”
As far as I am aware, we have no direct knowledge of what Lotta’s personal views were regarding the founding of the state of Israel. We do know that Lotta’s sister Lilly and her husband sought refuge in Palestine from 1940 to 1946, and eventually emigrated to Canada in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding.
As a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust herself, Lotta would surely have felt great empathy for those Jewish post-WWII refugees who, seeking a safe haven, emigrated to Palestine and later to Israel.
At the same time, her heart could not have been untouched by the armed conflicts and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Beyond that, unless further research comes to light, we don’t currently know how she felt about the broader political issues in the region.
What we do know is that Lotta and USC’s initial energies from 1945 onwards were directed towards supporting those who were rebuilding their lives in post WWII Europe. The focus was on war victims, including the orphans who were cared for at the Maison d’enfants de Sèvres in France, where Lotta was held in great esteem. The famous Jewish mime Marcel Marceau was also associated with the Maison de Sèvres, as can be seen in this remarkable video:
By the mid 1950s, USC’s programs had moved well beyond their European origins. Lotta decided to bring USC’s support to the Middle East, but what caused her to reach out to such a degree to help Palestinian refugees? In the midst of so many decades of fighting in the Middle East, did she, as a Jewish woman, feel conflicted in any way? Did she feel the need to take sides? We have no direct answer to this question, but I think we can trace in the elements of an answer below.
In an October 31, 1956 article, Vancouver Sun writer Mamie Moloney recounts how Lotta had recently been questioned about the conflict in Cyprus, at the same time that USC was continuing to support projects in Greece.
It is worth quoting Moloney directly here (emphasis added):
“We do not even think of Cyprus,” she said. “It has no bearing on the projects.” And she explained that the keynote behind all USC projects is to give aid where the need is greatest, that neither political considerations, race or creed have anything to do with USC’s determination to step in and help.
And it struck me, as it has done many times before, that peace will not come to the world until this same policy permeates our relations with all other nations. It is, after all, only a practical extension of the biblical admonition to “Love thine enemies.”
At the present time, because of the troubles on Cyprus, Greece is technically an “enemy.” But, by continuing its work among the needy people of Greece, the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada is quietly building up goodwill for Canada, that will, like bread cast upon the waters, return to us when the troubles on Cyprus are settled and forgotten. The same is true in the Middle East where the USC is starting a new project to help Arab refugees in Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.
“Do good to them that hate you. Help them that persecute and calumniate you.” It is in these words, uttered 2,000 years ago, that our hope for a peaceful world lies.
The following year, in November 1957, Lotta gave a speech to 100 women gathered at the Palliser Hotel in Calgary. Here are some quotes from the November 13 edition of “The Albertan”:
“As a relief worker … I have been in the darkest corners of the world … and have witnessed the most heart rending scenes,” she told the audience….
While touring Jordan, Syria and the Gaza Strip … she had seen much poverty and encountered an Arab orphan refugee housed in a tent whose shirt was so patched it was impossible to tell which was the original material.
She told the youth if he would give her the shirt – in exchange for two new ones – she would take it across Canada on her return and show people how the refugees were clothed. The women were invited to inspect the shirt at the end of the meeting.
And from an article in the May 26, 1960 edition of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix:
The all-Canadian “layette lift” – an enterprise of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada – sent 25,000 basic layettes to Middle East mothers last month….
Mothers in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip now are able for the first time to dress their babies in warm and cosy garments.
Going on, the article shows just how strongly Lotta was urging her supporters to offer aid to Palestinian refugees, and how widespread the support was across the country:
The layette lift had its Canadian response from coast to coast. Saskatchewan students charged a layette as admission to school dances and gentlemen shyly gave soap and safety pins at numerous public gatherings.
A British Columbia pensioner unravelled wool for his 83-year old neighbour to knit into baby vests, and women’s institutes volunteered long hours of work….
And the humanitarian connection, a trademark of Lotta’s communication skills, was never uni-directional. Through her painstaking field notes and correspondence, she always brought stories back to Canada to share with her supporters, as this Palestinian refugee’s letter demonstrates.
One grateful mother on the receiving end wrote to the Committee’s Ottawa headquarters:
“We know there is somebody caring for us and helping us to bear the difficulties of life, and also that there are people with good and pitiful hearts whose aim and motto in life is to save people from poverty and need.”
And from Clyde Sanger’s biography of Lotta:
In February 1968, after the Six Day War, Dr. Lotta went to where the battle had carried some of its victims, to six temporary tented camps in the Jordan Valley, where 56,000 new refugees had arrived from the West Bank.
One of these camps had been shelled by Israeli artillery a few days before, killing six children and five women. She stood in another camp and watched as truckloads of refugees arrived from the Sinai desert, having left their homes in the middle of the night with few possessions.
A refugee more than once herself, she gazed at an old tattooed Bedouin woman who was begging to be allowed to return. It was, she wrote [in a report to the USC Board], “a dramatic and heartrending sight.”
But help is worth more than pity, and the next paragraphs of her report set out new ways in which Canadians might come to the refugees’ aid: teenage girls could make baby blankets from knitted squares, the British Columbia government could give a carload (16,300 kg) of evaporated milk originally offered for Korea, and Ontario should be able to provide 4,000 pairs of shoes that were needed for Gaza refugees who had fled over the Canal into Egypt….
An even bigger effort began in 1970 with the support of a health centre at Balata on the West Bank, a few kilometres south of Nablus, serving a camp of nearly 10,000 refugees. In the first years, this support of more than U.S. $15,000 a year came from the proceeds of the Miles for Millions walks in Calgary and Ottawa.
As far as we know, Lotta never took sides in any of the wars in the Middle East. To her, war only brought more suffering, more victims. Here, she is quoted in the Regina Leader-Post, November 6, 1973, just days after the Yom Kippur War:
“War is no solution. It only creates new problems….but I continue to be an optimist, because I know how much can be achieved without war.”
One of Lotta’s final public acts was in June 1983, in front of a packed audience in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, where she became the third recipient of the Rotary Award for World Understanding, following Pope John Paul II. Here is what Lotta said, as cited in Clyde Sanger’s biography of Lotta (emphasis added):
“We are all brothers and sisters, aiming at one single goal: to help make this torn, crying, bleeding world of ours a peaceful shrine for everyone – whatever his or her language, background or color.”
“With all our might we must avoid another holocaust, which would be a catastrophe. Instead of destruction we must aim at construction – and very little time is left………”
What would Lotta think if she were alive today?
To conclude this essay, I think we have learned enough to be able to sketch in the following observations.
If Lotta were alive today, she would be horrified at the massacre of innocent civilians in Israel, the taking of hostages, and the unbearable suffering of innocent civilians in Gaza due to the siege, and the death and destruction from the constant bombings. As well as the deepening divisions in the Middle East, here in Canada, and around the world.
If Lotta were alive today, she would be devastated to learn that, more than 30 years after her death, humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees is still one of the world’s most pressing issues, and could well continue for many more decades.
And if Lotta were alive today, she would surely call out for an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and the unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid — all to prevent even worse catastrophe, in her words.
There has perhaps never been a Canadian — or international figure for that matter — who has personally witnessed as much pain and suffering due to armed conflicts as Lotta Hitschmanova did in her travels around the world.
When she says that “war is no solution” and “only creates new problems,” is not her message just as important today as it was in 1945 or 1980?
Today Lotta would be saying to us all — regardless of our political positions or affiliations — that we absolutely have to build bridges across our differences, to find peaceful ways of resolving conflicts.
Lotta’s enduring message to us would be this. That we must grieve the loss of life, yes, on all sides of this conflict, and all conflicts. But that we must channel any anger inside of us, not towards retribution or hatred of the Other, but rather towards building a lasting and a just Peace.
Only that will ensure — for the tragic victims of all this violence — that “their sacrifice will not be in vain.”
We’ll give Lotta the final word here, once again from her 1983 Rotary Award for World Understanding address:
“Some of you will say that mine is a Utopia, and that may be so; but are we not on earth to make it a better, a kinder world for all?”