If you haven’t met Lotta Hitschmanova, it’s probably because you aren’t starving, sick or homeless in a foreign land

NATHAN DRESKIN September 1 1967

If you haven’t met Lotta Hitschmanova, it’s probably because you aren’t starving, sick or homeless in a foreign land

NATHAN DRESKIN September 1 1967

If you haven’t met Lotta Hitschmanova, it’s probably because you aren’t starving, sick or homeless in a foreign land

NATHAN DRESKIN

IN HONG KONG one morning last February, Mrs. Ho Jo Chin, 35, arose as usual at three o’clock and walked several miles to the flower market to buy flowers to sell in the street. She worked through to midday, took the afternoon off to have her eighth baby, a girl, at a nearby clinic, then walked back home, with the baby, to look after the rest of the family. Her problem then was that if she didn't return to work the next morning, she'd have no money to teed her brood, since her husband was sick and unemployed.

By chance — since many thousands of Hong Kong’s four million people are in similar or worse circumstances — Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, Executive Director of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, heard of her plight. Dr. Hitschmanova who was on her annual visit to the USC projects in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, arranged medical care for the baby and day-nursery care for some of the other children.

She also pressed some money into the woman's hand and told her, through an interpreter, that all this was “in the name of Canadian mothers.” Her Hong Kong diary ended with the comment: “The hunger and

overcrowding are unbelievable. We must help more.”

For the past 22 years. Dr. Hitschmanova has been helping the poor in foreign lands to stave off hunger, cold and disease. Now 54, her once flaming-red hair greying, she shows no sign of letting up.

She shows no signs, either, of allowing the organization she founded 22 years ago to become "modernized.” In an age when organized charity has become computerized. jargonized and centralized for raising funds. Dr. Hitschmanova is something of an anachronism, a vast-scale throwback to the days when charity was a kindly lady who carried baskets of food and clothing to the needy. The USC has no connection with the United Appeal, doesn't hold tag days and, in fact, is not even a department of the Unitarian Hitschmanova, who stumps the country for three months every year to sparkplug the raising of money and supplies from a wide variety of donors, spends another four months in the most depressed far corners of the world making sure USC charity reaches where it will do the most good.

Last winter, in Korea, her slight, five - foot figure could be seen scrambling up the ice-covered paths leading to Seoul’s notorious mud-hut slums high in the Mapo Hills, where she distributed food and clothing. Not long after, in a small shed in Mokpo, on the Yellow Sea, she fed hot milk to a dozen old men and eight abandoned children. Later that day she clucked over 10 orphaned infants wiggling cosily in USC nighties and diapers in a USC clinic. Weeks later, in an isolated Greek village, she was handing out layettes to a dozen mothers, each with a newborn baby swaddled in rags. In the meantime she had visited some 29 USC-sponsored homes in four countries, traveled by Jeep and on foot to starving villagers in India, consulted with scores of USC workers in the field, partner relief agencies and government officials.

In addition to setting up the homes that have cared, to date, for more than 12,000 children, she has initiated hundreds of projects involving community centres, hospitals, mobile medical units, education and training fa-, cilities, health and welfare programs. To do these things, she has raised in Canada four and a half million dollars in cash and shipped 12-and-a-half million pounds of supplies.

"She’s a one-woman army,” the late syndicated columnist Elmore Philpott once wrote. She still is. But such labels embarrass her.

“Over half a million Canadians who loyally support the USC deserve the credit,” she insists. “Without them I'd be helpless.”

But it’s impossible to visualize / continued on pape 66 the USC without Dr. Hitschmanova. She travels up to 50,000 miles a year in its hehalf. On her Canadian tours she gives about 150 speeches, visits most of the 50 branches, work groups and collection centres run by volunteers from St. John’s to Victoria.

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LOTTA HITSCHMANOVA continued from page 36

Days and nights, one routine: work

Her schedule would appall most work addicts. When in Ottawa she arrives at the USC headquarters on Sparks Street at 8 a.m., works through to six, lunching on a sandwich and coffee at her desk. Supper in her liny downtown apartment permits no dawdling — she’s back at the office at 7 and remains there until nearly midnight. Only in the past three years has she taken an annual two-week holiday, and this was on her doctor’s insistence when a virus infection in India nearly proved fatal. USC’s paid staff of 16 women in Ottawa process a mountain of correspondence through, among others, an administrative assistant, a “foster parents’ desk,” a “Canadian desk,” and are perpetually snowed under by the administration of a multitude of operations ranging thousands of miles in and beyond Canada.

“We often worked nights, Sundays and holidays,” recalls a former member of the USC staff. “Nothing else mattered to her but that children were starving or freezing somewhere.”

“On her tour abroad,” says John Buss, a CBC film maker who followed her recently for two months in Asia to make a documentary, “she had

everything planned in detail weeks in advance. I’ve never seen anybody agonize so much over a minute’s delay. I lost track of the number of notebooks she filled with interviews and observations during the day; then she’d be up half the night typing reports or filling dictation belts.”

“Her reports on this year’s trip totalled 115 single-spaced foolscap pages,” says Harry Bolster, an Ottawa civil servant who is chairman of the USC’s hoard of directors. “She anticipates all the questions and supplies all the answers, down to the last detail. It simplifies decision-making.” She has, on occasion, requested and received a go-ahead on sizable emergency projects within three hours.

In competing for the charity dollar, the USC spurns local blitzkrieg tactics and the anonymity of United Fund campaigns. It substitutes a dedicated national group of volunteers who work the year around, and depends wholly on a single person, Dr. Hitschmanova, to spearhead its national drive by public appearances in schools, churches, community halls, and by radio and TV talks. Because she is so much in the public eye, she is vulnerable to critics who preface their barbs with: “She’s doing a marvelous job. but —”

□ She’s got a major-general complex with that uniform of hers.

Designed in the 1950s, the uniform is light khaki for summer and a heavy, olive green for winter. It solves the luggage problem of long trips. Mainly, though, it saves time, she says. “Otherwise. I'd have to keep changing, depending on the occasion and weather.” The double row of ribbons is recognition of her work by several foreign governments and such organizations as the Greek and French Red Cross.

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LOTTA HITSCHMANOVA continued

“How can I help?” she asks, then campaigns to fill the need

□ Charity begins at home. Why doesn't

she help our own needy?

She replies, “All sorts of agencies exist in Canada for this purpose. The USC goes mainly to the Middle East and Asia where the need is greatest."

□ S h e duplicates work done by

UNICEF, CARE and others.

“Our method of selecting USC projects makes duplication virtually impossible,” she maintains. “Co-operation with other agencies, yes. The tragedy lies not in overlapping but in underlapping — there's so much to be done!”

□ She exploits maudlin sentimentality

in her appeals.

Her supporters admit that Dr. Lotta's tears often do seem to lubricate the USC operation but claim that her tears are sincere. What's important, they say. is the result. Colonel Arthur Long, Salvation Army territorial commander in India, says, "Dr. Hitschmanova and the USC are saving thousands of lives in Madras alone.” An External Affairs officer in Ottawa privately admits, “She has probably done more for the Canadian image in Korea. India and Greece than all the official aid programs.”

It has, in fact, been that way ever since she founded the USC in August 1945, to set up homes for Europe's war orphans. In 1949 she was the first foreigner to enter liberated frontier villages in northern Greece after its civil war. When she saw newborn babies wrapped in newspapers, she launched a March of Diapers on her return to Canada.

“I prayed for five miles of flannelette,” she recalls. “We got 18 miles.”

On a subsequent trip to Greece, she visited the village of Mesovouna. All its males between 14 and 60 had been lined up and shot during the civil war. When the black-clad women gathered around her, she asked them, “How can 1 help?” The reply: "Send us a tractor to do the work that our men did.”

She appealed to the Ontario Women's Institutes for $3,000. They raised $10,000. With it she got the tractor and used the rest to buy flour for her “Bread for Greece” crusade. For that project she raised enough money to buy 750 tons of flour. The Greek government later credited her officially with saving thousands of lives.

During Korea’s crop failure in 1953, she promised $100,000 for a three-month feeding program for its children. This time the money raising in Canada went badly. "By the time I reached the west coast,” she remembers, “it looked like a smashing failure.” Then she went to see Bruce Hutchison of the Victoria limes. She later reported, “I got a sympathetic hearing.” It was an understatement, say observers, who claim that when

Hutchison emerged from the meeting his face was tear-stained. In any case, the Times went overboard on the campaign and other newspapers picked it up. Dr. Hitschmanova got her $100,000. (Newspapers, radio and TV annually support her plea for “Friendship Dollars” with their “Cup of Milk Fund" and similar drives.)

In 1958 the United Nations asked her to supply 25.000 layettes for Arab refugee babies and she organized the largest baby shower in Canadian history. For its "Layette Lift” her volunteer workers set up collection agencies in schools, fire halls, churches and banks. Penticton. BC, children collected articles from door to door.

Memorial University students in St. John's held a scavenger hunt for soap. Saskatoon teenagers charged an admission fee of towel and soap for their Friday-night dances.

In its operations abroad, the USC prides itself on “the personal touch.” When a penniless. 42-vear-old Korean refugee named Im Chong Nam arrived in Mokpo with his family, the USC Korean team gave him an interest-free loan (later repaid) for a pushwagon to peddle coal briquettes.

The USC has sent sewing kits and raincoats to isolated Greek villages, and given cows to indigent farmers. When Dr. Hitschmanova learned that Korean children were suffering frostbitten feet from exposure, she devised an easily knit, heel-less stocking anti sent the design to USC branches across the country. USC volunteers took it from there, producing enough stockings to keep thousands of children's feet warm in unheated tents, shacks and schoolrooms.

She personally investigates all projects. discusses them with local USC workers (voluntary and paid), partner agencies and local governments. Says USC Chairman Harry Bolster, “She works so hard raising funds that she recommends only the most deserving requests.” When the village of Maldini in India’s Mysore State asked for a Jeep-ambulance service, she okayed il, but turned down its request for a well. Instead, she persuaded the villagers to tackle it on a co-operative basis (she was invited to open it officially when they finished the job a year later).

To the Hong Kong director of social welfare's plea for money to help its day-nursery program for working mothers, Dr. Hitschmanova said, “First I'd like to meet some of those mothers.” One was a widow with six children. The woman was earning 12 cents a day making plastic flowers and, to find time for that, she had to tie one of her children to a bed. Dr. Hitschmanova got a $9,000 grant to enlarge the nursery.

Despite her long contact with human misery, Dr. Hitschmanova still suffers with its victims. “J saw her walk out of a peasant’s shack in India to get hold of herself before going hack in,” John Buss recalls, “because of a tubercular child dying under such conditions.”

In India’s drought-stricken Bihar State, she openly wept when the food supply ran out and local officials had to turn away the emaciated natives, some of whom had walked eight miles for it. “I feel so guilty.” she says of her own USC experiences, “when lack of money stops me from feeding the starving.”

She has repeatedly turned down a salary raise for herself. She gets about $6,000 a year and much of that goes in handouts to such people as Mrs. Ho Jo Chin, the Hong Kong mother of eight. She lives in Spartan fashion — her uniform is an economical way of dressing — has no car and spends what little time she spares from the USC in reading and listening to classical recordings.

“I never saw a woman look happier than when she was greeted by the kids in the USC homes,” says the CBC’s John Buss. “How they carried on! Tears, kisses, hugs.”

A Korean poet has transposed her name to mean “great fulfillment.” She is called, in a variety of languages and dialects in Korea and India “Godmother from Canada,” “Mother of a Thousand Children,” and “World Orphans Mother.”

The children prepare for her annual visits weeks in advance. They build welcoming arches and practise O Canada. On her arrival, they strew her path with garlands and rose petals, and sprinkle her with sandalwood water. But once, asked to take the salute of a guard of honor, she refused and later lectured the staff: her uniform, she reminded them, had nothing to do with things military.

LOTTA HITSCHMANOVA continued

“We have a remedy for the skeptical:

The children’s affection takes practical form: — they shower her with their handicrafts (she once carried a sticky piece of candy carving in her handbag for weeks, unable to throw' it away). Since travelers on Indian trains must carry their own bedding, the boys at the Saligram, Madras, training centre w'ove her sheets, pillow cases, tow'els and bedspread, all suitably monogrammed and formally presented “to keep you comfortable, protect you from the dust, and for softer dreams.”

She programs a “Canada Hour” at each home to answer questions about that distant land, and interviews all the foster children through an interpreter, reporting her findings to the Canadian foster parents (who pay $108 a year for a child's upkeep). From Hyderabad: “How I deplored that you could not see your very own little one. I w'onder if you realize how much happiness you give . . .” And from Trivandrum: “To you they owe everything that is kind, gentle and warm.”

But she also gently reproves some foster parents for their overgenerosity. “Some children at the home do not receive presents,” she explains. “May I suggest that you earmark your gift money for library books?”

To support all this work abroad, USC voluntary workers knit, sew, collect new and used clothing and raise money in a wide variety of w'ays. A Log Valley, Sask., farmer has set aside a “God’s acre” on his farm and gives the income to the USC. Mrs. Doris Kaufman, USC’s Kitchener, Ont., chairman, and her son hunt dew worms at night and sell them to fishermen. “Every w'orm represents the shipping costs on two pounds of milk powder to India,” she explains.

Says Dr. Hitschmanova, “We have an excellent remedy for the skeptical and cynical. Just come in and read our mail.” A Sachs Harbor Eskimo mother sends in $20 earned by sew'ing for the few whites there . . . $7.50 comes from a 10-year-old Halifax girl who t i'd her birthday-party guests to bring cash, not presents . . . two dollars from an Edmonton mother in lieu of flowers for her baby’s grave . . . four dollars from a Prince Albert penitentiary parolee’s prison money. And in Kelowna, BC, a 93-year-old man unravels wool from worn pullovers so that his 85-year-old neighbor can knit it into baby shirts.

A million dollars equally divided in cash and kind was raised last year in this way. “We have many friends,” says Dr. Hitschmanova. “Most have big hearts but meagre purses; all of them are sensitive to the needs of others.”

She herself has known this need. A native of Prague, with a PhD in political science, she was a correspondent for eastern European newspapers before World War II. Her critical comments on the Nazis forced her to flee from the Gestapo in Mu-

nich in 1938. Crossing borders at night on foot, she went into hiding in France.

One day in Marseilles, in 1941, at the end of her resources, she collapsed in the street from hunger. She regained consciousness long enough to give the address of the American Unitarian Service Committee there —

just read our mail”

an experience which was to shape the course of her life. In 1942 she was admitted to Canada to work as a postal censor in Ottawa. By war’s end her entire family — with the exception of a sister who now lives in Toronto — had been wiped out by the Nazis.

USC’s national chairman, Harry Bolster, calls her a “modern Schweitz-

er,” and adds, “I know of no one so totally committed to a cause.”

To Dr. Hitschmanova, alleviating human misery thousands of miles away from home by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and educating the young “represents the Canadian people at their warmhearted best. Tomorrow’s world will be the better for giving today’s children a chance. That’s peace-building.”

And, presumably, that’s what drives Lotta Hitschmanova. ★