Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

Lotta Hitschmanova, Mother of a Thousand

A century ago, when Lotta Hitschmanova was young, she lived with her sister Lilly and their mother and father in a spacious home in the ancient city of Prague. Their nanny spoke to them in Czech, the language of the local people, their governess spoke to them in French, and their mother and father spoke to them in English, German, Italian, or Spanish, depending on the day. Lotta studied Latin and Greek at school. "Learn to speak with different people," her mother said, "and you will go far."

When Lotta was twenty-three, she traveled to France and studied political science and journalism at the Sorbonne University. But in 1938, soon after she came home to Prague, the Nazis invaded her country. In her articles for the newspaper, Lotta wrote against the Nazis. "It is not fair," she wrote, "for them to take our country and our homes." But the Nazis took what they wanted and killed those who disagreed.

So, Lotta left her home and her family, and traveled to Belgium. Soon, the Nazis invaded Belgium. Lotta went to France and tried to get a visa so she could travel to the United States, far across the ocean. She was denied a visa, but she worked in an office helping other people to leave, speaking to them in their own languages. She began working with the Unitarian Service Committee, and when the Nazis invaded France, the Service Committee helped Lotta escape.

In 1942, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, where she settled in Ottawa and joined a Unitarian church. But Lotta did not forget the people who were still in Europe, the people caught in a terrible war. With her knowledge of many languages, she translated documents and letters, helping her new country fight the Nazis. She also traveled around Canada, speaking at churches and public meetings, asking for food, medicine, blankets and clothing to send to the people whose countries were being destroyed by war.

In 1945, the war against the Nazis ended, but the need for help didn't end. Thousands of people, many of them children, were hungry or wounded and had no place to live. Lotta Hitschmanova helped to create the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, and her work went on. "We have much," she told the people in Canada. "The war refugees have nothing, and that is not fair." Canadians gave money, food, and clothes, and Lotta took it all to Europe to share. There, she gave the people what she had. Then she asked them what they needed to take care of themselves. "We must listen first," she said, "then help."

In time, and with help, people in Europe rebuilt their countries. But other places and people were still being shattered by war, by drought, by disease: Italy, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Lesotho, Greece, Jordan, Palestine, Botswana, Indonesia, Nepal. For thirty-five years, Lotta would travel to these places and ask how she could help. Then she would return to Canada, asking for donations and letting people know how they could share.

Lotta Hitschmanova devoted her life to helping others. She never married and she never had children of her own. But she was known as the "Mother of a Thousand Orphans" and she created a legacy of love and fairness that lasts to this day.

Time Line

1909 Born November 28 in Prague, in today's Czech Republic into a Jewish family

1929-1935 Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Prague University, where she obtains a doctorate in French literature.

1938-1942 As a journalist in Prague, opposes the Nazis and is forced to flee, first to Belgium and then to France

1942 Arrives in Canada as a political refugee

1945 Creates the Canadian branch of the Unitarian Service Committee

1946 Undertakes her first fundraising tour of Canada for the victims of war in France and Czechoslovakia and later in Austria, Greece, and Italy.

1952 Launches an aid program for South Korea and Hong Kong

1955-1980 Launches aid programs in India, Palestine, Vietnam, Jordan, Bangladesh, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Indonesia, Nepal and Cyprus.

1981 Suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's disease, she retires.

1990 Dies on August 1 in Ottawa, Canada