Thursday, 03 March 2016 00:00

The Story of a Refugee Who Changed Canada

"[I was] exhausted with a feeling of absolute solitude in an entirely strange country...I came with $60 in my pocket. I had an unpronounceable name. I weighed less than 100 lbs, and I was completely lost."

Lotta-Hitschmanova-Unitarian-Service-Committee

This article was originally published by the Canadian Unitarian Council.

The sad and terrible plight of families fleeing war torn lands increasingly garners the attention of caring individuals and societies across the globe, and here in Canada.

It is evident that Canadians have been engaged in debates about how many refugees to welcome, how quickly, screening processes, and the like.

What we have not been debating, however, is whether or not we should even be helping our global neighbours in distress on the far side of the planet. For the vast majority of Canadians, this is a given. We are a caring society. We take this for granted.

And yet we shouldn't. It wasn't always this way. We should offer up thanks to our pioneering Canadian brothers and sisters, many of whom have passed on, for helping to establish and nurture the values that underpin our caring society. And for those who can remember the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, one "pioneer" in particular stands out for the influence she had on our society: Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990), a refugee to Canada herself.

Lotta's story begins on November 28, 1909 in Prague, where she was born into a loving Jewish family. In 1932, Lotta journeyed to Paris to study political science and journalism at the Sorbonne. In 1935, she returned home as a freelance journalist while completing her PhD in French literature at Prague University.

As the Nazi threat increased, Lotta became an outspoken critic, and when they prepared to take over Czechoslovakia in 1938, she had to flee quickly:

"I became a refugee...and 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, dreadful; you have no more roots, you have no one to turn to."

Lotta first fled to Brussels, and then narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion into northern France. She journeyed south, unsuccessfully trying to reach Spain on foot, and made it to Marseilles. She spent a year near Avignon, before moving back to Marseilles, where she worked with refugee support groups.

In 1942, she obtained a Canadian visa, reached Lisbon and boarded a refugee boat designed to carry bananas. After an arduous 46 day voyage – via Casablanca, Bermuda, and Vera Cruz – she landed in New York, and on July 22, 1942 arrived in Montreal:

"[I was] exhausted, with a feeling of absolute solitude in an entirely strange country...I came with $60 in my pocket. I had an unpronounceable name. I weighed less than 100 lbs, and I was completely lost."

And yet, Lotta did not give up. She soon moved to Ottawa, and became active in the refugee support network. She had close ties with the American Unitarian Service Committee – they had treated her after fainting from hunger in Marseilles – and they encouraged her to consider starting a branch in Canada.

In July 1945, Lotta learned that her parents had perished in the Holocaust. This personal tragedy reinforced her drive to help those suffering back in Europe. As Lotta wrote to a friend:

"If I tell you that nobody is waiting for me any longer, that I have lost the beings who 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."

Thus, in August 1945, Lotta founded the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC Canada), to whose mission she would devote the rest of her life.

Lotta in Greece

Lotta in Greece.

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 of "Dr. Lotta", as she was affectionately known.

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 – became the most recognizable address in the country.

Lotta's influence was not restricted to her work with USC. Thanks in large measure to her tireless educational efforts, a solid foundation was laid for the Canadian public's support for humanitarian and international development assistance.

As Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter 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."

Lotta received countless awards and honours on four continents for her service, and became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1980. Her greatest legacy remains in the deep, emotional reminiscences of the hundreds of thousands who still remember her and what she stood for.

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 is an Ottawa writer who recently retired after working with USC Canada for 22 years. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

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LottaHitschmanova tbnWhat's in a Name?

We’re called USC Canada because we started out way back in 1945 as the Unitarian Service Committee, founded by the energetic Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova. We’re still planting the seeds that Lotta sowed. Find out more about our founder, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova.

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