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By Joyce Thierry Llewellyn
In 1973, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, founder and executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC), was 63 years old and exhausted. She had just flown out of Bangladesh, having witnessed the still horrifying after-effects of repression that led to its 1971 Declaration of Independence from Pakistan. She was leaving behind a nation of devastated people she described as “soft as music and hard as rock.”
And she was experiencing the most profound self-doubt of her life.
For the first time in her 26 years of foreign aid work she had begun to question whether one person could make a difference. Would there ever be an end to the suffering she had tried to mitigate, first in Europe after the Second World War, then in Korea, the Gaza Strip, Vietnam, India, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and now Bangladesh?
In 1973, the USC was operating in 13 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East providing financial support to schools, hospitals, farms, and orphanages. Each country had a name of endearment for Dr. Lotta: “Diaper Lady” in Greece after she provided diapers and children’s clothes; “Auntie Codfish” in Korea when she supplied 160,000 kilograms of dried codfish one freezing winter to a country still suffering from the after affects of war, and “Mother of a Thousand Orphans” when she ensured that 70,000 children in South Korean orphanages had food, clothing, and medical supplies; in India she was “Lotabai,” an affectionate play on “Lotta”; and Canadians called her “Dr. Lotta.” She was also the “Atomic Mosquito” to Canadian editors and journalists because she would not hesitate to pick up the phone and call them at any time of day or night if she thought their paper had not given her cross-Canada fundraising events the coverage they deserved to ensure donations flowed in.
“This is Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa 4, Ontario.”
Like so many Canadians, I grew up hearing those words spoken by Dr. Lotta with her heavy Czechoslovakian accent and seeing the USC ads on television. My fascination continued into adulthood. When my family and I backpacked around the world for a year in 2001-2002, part of our trip was structured so I could visit sites where Dr. Lotta had set up USC sponsored programs. This allowed me to continue my Dr. Lotta research and interview people who had known and worked with her.
Every country we travelled through in Southeast Asia and Europe seemed to have a Dr. Lotta connection. We spent time at the rural Karnataka Hospital northwest of Bangalore, India where I met a second generation of doctors running the hospital their father had founded and which Dr. Lotta supported for over 20 years. I attended an incredibly remote Indian village women’s health clinic. It had been started by Dr. Lotta over 60 years ago and women still attend monthly meetings, many of the women walking for miles to reach the clinic. We stayed in the run-down Marseilles, France, hotel where she lived in a claustrophobic attic room, surviving on oranges and beetroot and listening to classical music on a tinny shortwave radio. In Italy, we travelled by bus and train and then walked the last few kilometres to reach a hillside village so I could see the stone building that had once housed a USC sponsored orphanage for the sons of soldiers killed in the war.
Not all of my plans worked out. My scheduled meeting with the USC rep in Bangladesh had to be cancelled because of pre-election rioting. And my Jakarta, Indonesia visit never took place. We were travelling in Bali, planning on heading to Jakarta next when 9/11 took place. After several frightening experiences, including being stoned by Muslim youth who thought we were Americans, my family left the country as soon as planes were allowed to fly again.
Our experiences were minor compared to what Dr. Lotta had gone through.
In 1973, Dr. Lotta was the sole USC representative who spent up to six months a year overseas, annually traveling 60,000 km on the organization’s behalf. Her experience in Bangladesh was all too familiar, and reminded her of her trip six years earlier to Bihar, India. She had left Canada as the country was celebrating Expo ’67 and arrived in Bihar to find 30 million men, women, and children “dying inch by inch.” They were starving to death because of the drought. “That was much crueler than if they had been killed by hand grenades or earthquakes.” Within days she arranged for train loads of milk powder to be bought and distributed. And, like all the previous times she had considered quitting, she found renewed strength and conviction responding to a desperate need.
Foreign aid work had not been part of her life plan. Although she came from an upper-class Jewish family in Prague, her parents emphasized education and music rather than the synagogue. After earning her Doctorate of Philosophy at the University of Prague she completed additional degrees in languages and journalism at the Sorbonne and Ecole de Journalisme in Paris, then began writing for French and Czechoslovakian newspapers. Her fiery anti-Nazi articles resulted in her name appearing on a Nazi death list. She spent the war hiding throughout Europe, moving from country to country, avoiding various retreating and advancing armies. She survived by finding work, food, and shelter where ever she could. One of her lowest moments came when she fainted from hunger in a food line in Marseille. This experience became a turning point in her life. From that moment on, she vowed no one else would go hungry or feel abandoned by the world. At some point during these years of exile her parents disappeared, having been sent first to Theresienstadt and then on to Auschwitz.
She arrived in Ottawa in 1945 and founded the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada. Her initial intent was to help war-shocked children and European refugees survive the aftermath of the Second World War. She believed this task would last only four years. However there was always another war, another natural disaster. She travelled from Greece to Italy, South Korea, Hong Kong, India, Gaza, South Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Nepal, for the next 35 years. During these overseas trips she wrote in her journal: “I cannot fall asleep tonight because I have seen too many ugly things today.” On her return to Canada, she would begin an annual three-month, cross-Canada fundraising tour. At the same time, she continued to reach out to thousands of supporters in her monthly newsletter, Jottings.
What made her approach unique was the idea that local people and agencies should be responsible for these foreign projects. At that time all other Canadian and American aid agencies insisted North Americans manage and control their overseas aid programs. Dr. Lotta, on the other hand, would leave a local person in charge and return to Canada to raise funds. This money would go to Korean doctors to build a medical clinic, Buddhist nuns to buy prosthetic limbs for South Vietnamese children, and for an Indian agricultural college to hire teachers. Her goal was always to work herself out of a job, not only to give the needy bread but “to gift them with a power to make their own bread.”
The olive green America Army Nurse’s uniform she wore at all times was as much a part of her persona as her red hair, and her constant scribbling in little notepads. In the 1940s all foreign aid workers were required to wear a uniform and she chose this one because it was easy to travel in and very recognizable. It resulted in some misconceptions. An Ontario man tried to buy bus tickets from her. In Korea, someone thought she was delivering telegrams.
For Canadians who remember the black and white USC television ads, Dr. Lotta was the face of the Unitarian Service Committee, with her distinct middle-European accent. She motivated generations of Canadians to help destitute populations around the world. Canadian fire halls were turned into depots for donations and clothing. Church basements became warehouses where hundreds of people sorted clothes to be sent overseas. Saskatchewan farmers sent boxcars of barley to supply one meal a day to 125,000 Korean children.
From the beginning she cut all ties with the Unitarian Church, so that all countries could be equally involved regardless of their cultural, religious or political background. She was a passionate believer in providing women with information about and access to birth control, but she believed her role was to alleviate poverty, not to become a spokesperson for specific social actions. When she refused to be the poster woman for the Pill and Birth Control advocates in the 1960s, for example, many members of the Unitarian Church stopped donating to her organization. And at one time Canada’s public broadcaster CBC refused to run USC ads because Dr. Lotta provided funds for family planning clinics in Hong Kong.
Dr. Lotta and the Indian High Commissioner to Canada were in conflict for years over her ads showing photographs of starving Indian children waiting for Canadian milk. She repeatedly said, “Commissioner, if I could make a trip to India and find that USC milk and training programs were no longer needed I would be happier than you could ever imagine. When that day arrives call me and I’ll stop showing my television ads. I’ll pull the newspaper photos. Until then you can find me raising money to feed the bodies and minds of those who need it.” Eventually Indian students studying in Ottawa protested in front of the USC office, which began to impact the funding of other USC projects. In 1975 a heartbroken Dr. Lotta made the decision to withdrew USC support from India.
This obsessed, penny-pinching savior intimidated governments, bullied staff, and in the process saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives around the world. In 1982 she was gently persuaded to retire because of the onset of Alzheimer symptoms.
In a speech one year later, when she received the Rotary Award for World Understanding, Dr. Lotta said that her goal had always been “to help make this torn, crying, bleeding world of ours a peaceful shrine for everyone, whatever his or her language, background or colour.”
Dr. Lotta died in 1990, in her 82nd year.
Her beloved USC Canada remains active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America focusing on family farms and ensuring healthy ecosystems. Today the USC supports “programs, training and policies that strengthen biodiversity [and] food sovereignty…[for] women, indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers.” This Canadian “Mother Teresa with attitude” proved one tiny, passionate woman can make a difference in the world.
Copyright Joyce Thierry Llewellyn 2014
Notes and further reading:
Unitarian Service Committee of Canada site
USC publications page, including current issues of Jottings
Wikipedia page for Lotta Hitschmanova
Joyce Thierry Llewellyn is a creative fiction and non-fiction writer, a television and film screenwriter, story editor, and an instructor in the Writing for Film & Television Program at the Vancouver Film School.
More of her work may be seen at her website: tamarackjourneyproductions.com
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