As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, let’s take a moment to acknowledge one of Canada’s most influential humanitarian pioneers, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990).
Dr. Lotta was a World War II refugee who made a lasting impact on her adopted country and acted as a Canadian ambassador around the world.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, Dr. Lotta helped educate and mobilize Canadians from coast to coast, putting Ottawa on the map – not just as a seat of government and political debate, but as a center for Canadian caring and concern for the rest of the world.
Hers is one of Canada’s most tragic and compelling refugee stories. She was a journalist by profession, an outspoken critic of the Nazis, and had to flee her native Czechoslovakia in 1938.
“I experienced personally how much it hurts to be hungry. To be a refugee, to be without a home, to be without country, to be without friends. And this is something dreadful; you have no more roots, you have no one to turn to.”
For four years she was forced to wander about Europe, eventually finding her way to Marseilles, where she helped 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” as she put it, feeling completely lost. And yet just three years later, she became the founder of an organization to whose humanitarian mission she would dedicate the rest of her life: the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada).
Her work took her back to post-war Europe, and to Africa and Asia – to conflict zones and newly-independent nations, where the need was greatest. Long before the age of 24 hour newscasts, she urged Canadians to become aware of people’s living conditions far away, to take action and help: “Charity begins at home…and then it goes on to embrace next door neighbours and all those who need help.”
Thousands of Canadians from all faiths and walks of life responded to the sincerity of her message, and became lifelong supporters. Who can forget her distinctive Czech accent (and her unique uniform) during those TV and radio ads in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s? For many, USC’s address – “56 Sparks Street, Ottawa 4” – became the most recognizable address in the country.
Dr. Lotta’s influence went well beyond her work with USC Canada. Thanks to her tireless educational efforts over four decades, a solid foundation was laid for the Canadian public’s ongoing support for international humanitarian and development assistance.
As Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter has put it: “It was Lotta Hitschmanova who shaped my values as a Canadian, and the type of Canada I believe in. She helped give us our identity.”
Dr. Lotta received countless awards and honours on four continents, and became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1980. In 2007, the Canadian Museum of History included her as one of our “founders” in its Canadian Personalities Hall. And in 2013, when the Museum conducted a poll on who has shaped Canada’s history, Dr. Lotta received the most votes, ahead of Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau.
But perhaps Dr. Lotta’s greatest legacy remains in the deep, emotional reminiscences of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who still remember her and what she stood for.
Seldom has a refugee had such an impact on Canadian society, and indeed around the world. A reminder that those we help today will be enriching our society, and helping many others tomorrow. The next Lotta Hitschmanova may soon be arriving in Canada. Let’s welcome them.
David Rain worked with USC Canada for 22 years and is currently a volunteer with the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). The views expressed in this article are his alone.