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.

Lotta grew up in a Jewish family in Prague and as a journalist became a strong voice against the Nazis. She had to flee her country in 1938, and after years wandering as a refugee in western Europe, she arrived penniless in Canada in 1942.

Remarkably, three years later, in 1945, she founded the Unitarian Service Committee, a year in which she also learned the horrifying news that her parents had perished in the Holocaust.

Carrying this tragedy deep within her, she dedicated the rest of her life to serving those in need: first in war torn countries in Europe and the Middle East; and later in newly independent countries in Africa and Asia.

Marie-Jeanne Musiol worked with Lotta in the 1970s. Almost 40 years later, long after Lotta’s death in 1990, she came to discover a heart-wrenching historical artifact of great significance to Lotta. Here is her first hand account:

“I met Dr. Hitschmanova as a young reporter for Radio-Canada, doing hour-long interviews that were aired on the cultural band. As so many, I became a friend. She told me about her past, knowing my father was Polish, had experienced the war and that we came to Canada as refugees.

“Recently, visiting the extermination camp at Auschwitz where I have been working as an artist for the past 15 years, I was struck to the core. In the suitcase room that I had seen so many times, I suddenly paid attention to the first suitcase at the very left of the pile in the showcase.

“On it, in the standard white lettering used on all suitcases, the name was that of Lotta’s mother – Else Hitschmann, Prag II, Sokolska 36, the same family home address given by Clyde Sanger on page 12 of his biography “Lotta”.

“Now when I walk the fields of the camp and see the ashes coming out of the earth, another soul has a name.”

As Canadians and others around the world this week commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let us give a thought to Lotta and her family, and to the millions who perished in this terrible human tragedy. May we never see such horrors again.

David Rain

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