“Dr. Lotta,” as she was known around the world, made Canada an innovative leader in foreign aid with her belief in grassroots leadership. Her experiences in Europe during the Second World War led her to found the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada in 1945, which advocated for those facing poverty, illness and starvation as a result of war, natural disasters and lack of education. Through her work, USC Canada saved millions of lives in Europe, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India and Africa.
Early Life and Family
Lotta Hitschmanova had an idyllic childhood. Born Lotta Hitschmann, she grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She and her younger sister, Lilly, had governesses and travelled extensively. In 1929, Lotta enrolled at the German University in Prague in the school of philosophy, but spent two of her four years of study at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1933, she received her doctorate from the German University, for her thesis André Thérive, critique du Temps. That year she returned to Paris, enrolling in both journalism and political science at the Sorbonne; she graduated with a journalism diploma in 1935. By this time she had also earned diplomas in five languages—French, English, German, Spanish and Czech. Her plan was to first become a journalist and later take up a diplomatic career.
Returning home in 1935, Lotta found work as a freelance writer for various Czechoslovakian, Romanian and Yugoslavian newspapers in which her articles became increasingly anti-Nazi. In 1938, Adolf Hitler began to focus his attention on Czechoslovakia and Lotta learned that her name was on a German list of unfriendly journalists. She fled Prague, leaving her family behind and escaping to Brussels, where she changed her last name from Hitschmann to the Slavic Hitschmanova because it sounded less Germanic. Hitschmanova was still there when the Second World War broke out in 1939, but she left in May 1940 after German aircraft attacked the city. She spent the next four years moving around Europe, writing and working whenever she could. She joined long lines of fleeing refugees, and learned to survive with minimal shelter and food.
In 1942, Hitschmanova arrived in France, where her language skills helped her get a job as a translator for an agency that helped immigrants. One day she collapsed in a food line-up in Marseilles and received help from a local medical clinic run by the American Unitarian Service Committee. It was a pivotal moment of her life. From then on, she swore that others would not experience what she had gone through.
Immigration to Canada
Unable to get a visa from the United States, Hitschmanova immigrated to Canada in July 1942. “I came with $60 in my pocket. I had an unpronounceable name. I weighed less than 100 lbs, and I was completely lost.” Within days, she was working as a secretary for Wood Lumber in Montréal; however, as she wanted to help the war effort, she applied both to be a postal censor and to the Royal Canadian Air Force. In October 1942, she moved to Ottawa to take up her work as postal censor in the Department of War Services, reading the letters of German prisoners of war. At the same time, she continued her work on behalf of European refugees by organizing relief supplies for France and raising money for the Czechoslovakian War Services in London. She also wrote articles and presented 15-minute radio reports in French about Czechoslovakian culture on Ottawa-Hull station CKCH.
Despite her government job, Hitschmanova had little money, keeping food in orange crates and reprimanding friends if they used too much soap. However, her greatest worry concerned her family. After numerous cables and letters, she located her sister, Lilly, in Palestine, but it wasn’t until several years later that she learned her parents had disappeared somewhere between the Theresienstadt (Terezin) and Auschwitz concentration camps (see Holocaust).
The Unitarian Service Committee of Canada
In 1945, Hitschmanova founded the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC Canada). Her initial challenge was to help war-shocked children and European refugees survive the aftermath of the Second World War. In January 1946, Hitschmanova set off on her first cross-Canada fundraising tour, speaking in churches, community halls, schools and radio stations. Canadians from across the country responded generously, donating $225,000 in money and goods that year alone. For the next 35 years, she educated Canadians on international aid, motivating generations of Canadians to help destitute children in post-war Europe, Japan, South Korea, South Vietnam, Palestine and India. In 1974, for example, Canadians donated over $2.2 million to the organization.
Aided by her journalist background, Hitschmanova kept her audiences riveted as she shared personal stories about the people she met on her overseas aid trips. She also produced monthly articles in the USC newsletter, Jottings. In 1967, for example, she wrote movingly of her trip to Bihar: “Every hour children and adults are dying in Bihar. Hunger and thirst do not kill instantly, as a hand grenade does, or an earthquake. This dying inch by inch is much more cruel.” The inspiring stories she told came at a price. “Very often I’m haunted by what I see during the day,” Hitschmanova wrote. “And so at night I am alone and I think back and it is difficult to sleep and to forget.”
Hitschmanova was determined that every penny raised would be spent on those in need. Stories about her concern for economy are legendary. “Dr. Lotta” insisted the office only buy second-hand office equipment and immediately remarked on any extravagance, including a complaint that too many cookies were served at a reception in Winnipeg. She held such a tight rein on the budget, USC Canada didn’t take out fire or theft insurance until 1958. She took the same approach to her own salary, protesting when the USC Canada Board decided to increase it.
In the Field
Although the initial focus of USC Canada had been to help European children and refugees recover from the Second World War, the organization soon turned its attention to other countries and continents. Hitschmanova thought her job would be finished in three to four years, but there was always another war or natural disaster. She subsequently travelled from Greece to Italy, South Korea, Hong Kong, India, Gaza, South Vietnam, Bangladesh, Africa, Indonesia and Nepal.
By the mid-1970s, USC Canada was sponsoring 150 projects in 20 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, and Hitschmanova was personally visiting and monitoring each site. In India, for example, she provided USC Canada money to build training centres for boys and girls who had lived on the streets. The organization also supported projects in rural areas, providing funding for an ambulance at the Karnatak Health Institute, which was located about 400 km south of Bombay on the Ghataprabha River. In the neighbouring villages, USC Canada sponsored a series of women’s conferences: for an investment of $500 a year, women from 13 different villages met from 1968 to 1975 and organized vaccinations and family planning talks, along with festivals, agricultural camps and yearly medical checkups for preschool children.
Hitschmanova was easily recognized by her red hair, military hat and the olive green surplus American Army nurse’s uniform she wore. A uniform was a UN requirement for anyone involved in foreign aid work. Hitschmanova found it an easy outfit to travel in, and had two versions: an olive green for winter; and a lighter khaki version for summer and hot countries. Both had the word Canada on the lapel beside her maple leaf pin.
Hitschmanova and USC Canada faced a number of obstacles both in Canada and overseas. One challenge lay in the organization’s links to the Unitarian Church. In 1948, she decided to break these ties, making it non-denominational so as not to antagonize anyone with different religious beliefs from donating money or accepting USC aid. By that time, USC Canada had also broken its links to USC Boston, even though it had initially been an outreach of the American group; Hitschmanova’s decision to separate from USC Boston was motivated in part because they insisted that Americans supervise overseas programs. Hitschmanova vehemently disagreed with this approach, believing each country and community would best be served by their own personnel. It was a philosophical difference that made the USC stand out from any other foreign aid agency working at that time.
Unitarian Church members remained strong supporters of USC Canada’s food, medical and educational programs. But as a church community, they were also very involved in social activism, including women’s rights to birth control. The feeling among many Unitarians was that Hitschmanova should be socially active and speak out in favour of birth control. However, Hitschmanova disagreed, saying her role was one of social service, not activism. She did not want to antagonize any of the agencies, churches or community groups who funded her projects, or the governments that allowed the USC to operate schools, hospitals and farms in their countries. As a result of Hitschmanova’s position, some Unitarians withdrew their support from the USC. Hitschmanova’s concerns, though, were justified. In 1972, the CBC refused to air USC Canada radio or TV ads about a family planning program in Hong Kong.
The organization also faced opposition from other countries. The Indian High Commissioner in Ottawa demanded that USC Canada stop showing photographs of starving Indian children in its ads. Hitschmanova agreed that the campaign presented a one-sided view of India, but she felt she only had a few seconds to make a point on television and such visuals were crucial. Hitschmanova and the board eventually decided to end aid to India, in part because of such opposition from the Indian government.
Several generations of Canadians grew up hearing Lotta Hitschmanova’s strong, Czech-accented voice on radio and TV ads, all of which ended with an appeal to support the USC at“56 Sparks Street, Ottawa.” The address became one of the most famous in the country.
By the mid-1980s, experiencing memory loss and failing health, she was no longer able to continue her overseas trips or her Canadian talks. The final irony is that this articulate, passionate woman spent the last years of her life with Alzheimer’s disease. She died of cancer in July 1990 in Ottawa.
Hitschmanova’s legacy, the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, now operates in 12 countries in Asia, Central and South America, Africa and Canada. USC Canada’s core program, “Seeds of Survival,” involves working with small-scale farms on food security and biodiversity.
Over the years, Hitschmanova received numerous awards from world governments, including the Medaille d’Honneur de la Croix Rouge (1950), the Medal of St. Paul from Greece (1952), Officer of the Order of Canada (1969), Woman of the Year for India by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1975) and Companion of the Order of Canada (1980). She also received the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal, the Médaille de la Reconnaissance française, the UN Headquarters Medal, and the Netherlands Decoration for Order and Peace, as well as the Royal Bank of Canada Award ($50,000).
In 1991, Agriculture Canada named its newest oat variety AC Lotta oat (Avena sativa) in her honour.
In 2007, Hitschmanova was chosen one of 27 influential Canadians to be featured in the Canadian Personalities Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) in Gatineau, Québec.
In 2016, the Government of Canada announced that Hitschmanova was one of 12 women being considered for representation on a Canadian bank note due to be released in 2018.