Lotta’s life

September 19, 2019
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A life of service: Lotta Hitschmanova

Lotta Hitschmann was born in 1909 in Prague to a Jewish family made up of her mother, Else Theiner, and her father, Max Hitschmann, a successful malt merchant. A younger sister, Lilly, was born 15 months later. 

Lotta grew up to be a brilliant and determined student with a talent for languages. She completed a Doctorate in Philosophy and postgraduate degrees in journalism and political science. She also earned diplomas in six different languages at the Sorbonne University in Paris. She even received a nursing diploma before diving into a career as a political journalist. 

Lotta freelanced for several European newspapers, penning openly defiant pieces towards the Nazi regime in Germany. When Czechoslovakia was invaded, she knew this made her a target so she joined the stream of fleeing Czechs and returned to Paris. There, she planned to continue studying and freelancing. It’s around this time that Lotta began to call herself “Hitschmanova”, the Slavic version of her German name, as a personal protest against Nazi occupation.

Lotta’s family. Clockwise from bottom left. Lotta’s parents Max and Else, Lotta’s sister Lilly and her husband Kurt, Lotta as a young girl, and as a young woman.

Her first contact with the Unitarian community

The situation in Europe continued to deteriorate for the next three years. Lotta was forced to move precariously from country to country. Eager to help others, she took on roles along the way with agencies assisting the displaced and hungry. 

In 1942, Lotta was working as a translator and teacher in Marseilles for a Czech refugee organization when she fainted from hunger in a busy market line. She was taken to the medical clinic of the Boston-based Unitarian Service Committee for treatment. She stayed in touch with the clinic in the following months, when some of her pupils⁠—recently freed from concentration camps⁠—needed to be treated for malnutrition. 

This was the start of what would become Dr. Lotta’s lifelong collaboration with Unitarians.

A long road to refuge

In 1942, at the request of the Czech Government in exile, Lotta was granted a visa to take refuge in Canada until the end of the war. She anxiously boarded The SS Guine, a steamer originally designed to carry bananas that now held 500 refugees.

The difficult journey from Lisbon to New York took 46 days, with stops in Casablanca, Bermuda and Mexico. One passenger had a heart attack and died the first morning at sea. Water ran short. Measles spread among children and a baby was born “under the most unhygienic circumstances”. Then a few miles from the shores of Mexico, the steamer got caught between an American air patrol and a Nazi submarine. Machine gun bullets fired in the water around the steamer, narrowly avoiding it but causing panic on board. Despite the turmoil, according to Lotta, “in the evenings the air was filled with the songs of many lands.”

Thirty-three year old Lotta reached Montreal in 1942, completely lost, with a feeling she’d later describe as “absolute solitude”. She weighed less than 100 pounds, was exhausted, malnourished and had only $60 in her pocket to start her new life. She wouldn’t have to wait long.

Reference letter for Lotta from the Unitarian Service Committee in Boston, vouching for ‘political and moral integrity’ and ‘anti-fascist status’. She would later take the helm of the Ottawa-based Canadian branch of the Unitarian Service Committee.

The birth of an innovative humanitarian vision: respect and empowerment

Lotta found work as a secretary on her fourth day in Canada. From there, she took on another job as a postal censor, but she continued to search for ways to help others who had lost everything in the war.

In 1944, she travelled to Washington to take a position with the refugee relief agency of the newly formed United Nations. However, the organization’s approach of sending Americans abroad to lead projects didn’t seem right to her, so she returned to Ottawa a few months later. She turned for help to Ottawa’s Unitarian community, with a vision for relief work that recognized and respected the autonomy and leadership of local communities. 

On June 10, 1945, Lotta chaired the first meeting of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada. It was held with four people at the Church of our Father at Elgin and Lewis Street in Ottawa. The committee recruited Canada’s first female senator, Carine Wilson, as an honorary chairperson, hoping she could help the largely female committee break through the layers of bureaucracy.

Lotta’s letter to her sister Lilly sharing the tragic news of their parents’ death in a concentration camp. Lotta’s mother’s suitcase is displayed on a pile at the Auschwitz Museum.

Courage shaped by grief

Lotta had been seeking information about her parents since her arrival in Canada. She had learned that they’d been taken to Terezin, a small town north of Prague that had swelled into a ghetto. Like others, she believed Terezin was a place where people were held before being deported to Poland. 

Just two months after the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada was founded, she received tragic news from a family friend in Europe: both her parents had perished in concentration camps. Heartbroken, Lotta wrote to close friend in Europe:

“If I tell you that nobody is waiting for me any longer, that I have lost the beings that are most dear to me, you will measure my despair, for you have the same sorrow. There’s only one thing: to work so that their sacrifice may not be in vain.”

Canadians mobilize

Lotta and her colleagues moved quickly to do all they could for the men, women and children lacking basic necessities in Europe. Canada’s response to their fundraising appeal was generous. These early successes only increased Lotta’s drive to do more.

Dear Donalda, 23 March 1946

It was so good to receive all that mail from you, and to feel that I have a real friend in you. 

I shall not leave this year for Europe, because it would be quite difficult to replace me in Canada. Our work is growing every day- you should see the clothing coming into the Churches for our branches! We shall ship about 10,000 lbs before the end of this month. And do you know that I raised more than $12,000 on my trip? This is a great success, much more than I ever dared to hope for. Boston is very happy about these results, but I am not satisfied. The need, according to the latest reports is immense, unimaginable, and we should be doing much more. I am working day and night and shall soon have an assistant and a secretary. I am desperately looking around for a suitable office, and the existing housing shortage in Ottawa does not improve the situation.”

Lotta recruited Canadians from all walks of life to help with her efforts, including Canada’s first female senator, Carine Wilson, top.

A non-denominational organization

In 1948, the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada severed its formal ties from the Unitarian Service Committee of Boston. Lotta, a newly minted Canadian citizen, was now the Executive Director of a financially independent, non-denominational organization, but ties with Unitarian communities across Canada remained strong. 

Hundreds of dedicated Unitarian volunteers continued to support and build the organization for decades more, organizing clothing drives, fundraising projects, media appearances, and serving on the organization’s Board. Their values of compassion, respect efficiency were the driving force of the organization.

Over the next 35 years, Dr. Lotta became one of Canada’s best known figures. Always in her distinctive home-made uniform, she traveled tirelessly in Canada and abroad, sharing news from the world, rallying volunteers and donors, and sparking a passion for humanitarianism in a generation of Canadian children. Her almost daily TV and Radio public service announcements encouraging Canadians to give generously to the USC Canada made 56 Sparks Street one of Canada’s most famous addresses.

Lotta was both an inspiration and a source of comfort to everyone who met her.

A legacy that shaped Canada

Lotta was charismatic, could captivate listeners with her stories from abroad, and exuded a natural leadership that easily brought people together over a common cause. Yet she was a very private woman who rarely socialized in her personal life. She never married and devoted herself entirely to her work, expecting the same extremely high standard from everyone she hired. Until 1969, when the first man was hired by USC, the organization she led was staffed almost exclusively by women without children. Lotta was a firm leader, and expected her employees to dedicate as much of their life to the organization as she did.

Thanks to Lotta, women, children and men in many countries around the world received life-saving support from USC Canada over the years. 

Lotta delivering one of her iconic public service announcements, reminding Canadians that ‘Charity begins at home’, Lotta’s famous home-made uniform on display at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Lotta receiving the Order of Canada in 1968.

Besides her success as a leader and fundraiser, one of the reasons that Lotta eventually earned international recognition, including the Order of Canada, was her principled and innovative approach to humanitarianism. 

Having been a refugee of war herself, Lotta Hitschmanova always viewed USC Canada’s work as a cooperative relationships with the people and communities she helped. She made it a point to find local people with strong leadership potential to lead and manage USC’s projects. Her objective was always to help communities seed change themselves.

Lotta worked tirelessly at the helm of USC Canada until 1983, when Alzheimer’s disease forced her retirement. Her USC family continued to visit and bring pink carnations, her favorite flower, until she passed away in August 1990.

During her exceptional life of service, Lotta Hitschmanova saw the worst tragedies of her time, yet she never stopped believing in the power of hope and generosity. 

Her legacy is perhaps best captured in the poem by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that her friends shared at her memorial.

Go to the people
Live among them 
Learn from them 
Start with what they know 
Build on what they have; 

But of the best leaders 
When their task is accomplished 
Their work is done 
The people will all remark 
“We have done it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu (c.6th Century B.C)
Lotta with children in Korea around 1970 with her trademark uniform and notebook.