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Lotta Hitschmanova’s Uniform

A uniformed woman surrounded by a group of people including children with different coloured flags in their hands.

Lotta Hitschmanova with children in Korea, circa 1970.
Courtesy USC Canada

A unique and powerful object in the museum’s current temporary show Peace: The Exhibition is the homemade uniform of the legendary Canadian humanitarian Lotta Hitschmanova.

This uniform, on loan to us from the Canadian War Museum, was the creation of a wartime immigrant to Canada who devoted her life to relief work and development around the world. Her uniform became part of her iconic status. Lotta quickly discovered that in postwar Europe, a uniform allowed you to move freely into camps and across borders --- so she invented her own. She adapted a surplus US Army nurse’s jacket by adding her own custom-designed badges and pins. The uniform gained her access, respect and simplified packing.

A uniformed woman pointing to a location on a map, she is surrounded by young girls all wearing a checkered kerchief and young boys all wearing a black sweater.

Lotta in her uniform in post-war Europe.
Photo by Rick Ervin, Courtesy USC Canada

The unique uniform helped Lotta get out of tricky situations in remote places. It also led to amusing encounters that appealed to her famous sense of humour as people mistook her for a bus conductor, telegram delivery woman or airline stewardess!

Old damaged suitcases piled on top of each other.

Suitcase from Lotta’s mother at the Auschwitz Museum.
Photo by Marie-Jeanne Musiol, Courtesy USC Canada

Lotta was born in Prague in 1909, in what is now the Czech Republic. She learned five languages and studied political science and journalism at the Sorbonne in Paris. She came to Canada as a refugee in 1942. Her parents were killed in the Holocaust. Lotta channelled the grief from her loss into helping others in the post-war world. She founded the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada in 1945. For 36 years, she worked relentlessly - speaking, writing, travelling and raising funds to feed, clothe and find homes for homeless and destitute people first in Europe and then around the world.

With her background in journalism, Lotta wrote and recorded many thoughtful and moving television commercials and commentaries for the Unitarian Service Committee. Each one ended with her sign-off: “56 Sparks Street, Ottawa”. For a whole generation, 56 Sparks Street became the best-known street address in the country. You can learn more about Lotta Hitschmanova in her biographies at the Canadian War Museumand the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada).

Although the uniform was Lotta’s own creation, the ribbons were real honours, awarded by countries around the world in recognition for her humanitarian work. Research by Arlene Doucette at the Canadian War Museum, Alain Simard at the Canada Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 and Gary Campbell at the Royal Canadian Legion has identified these awards as they appear on Lotta’s uniform:

  • Officer of the Order of Canada
  • Canadian Centennial Medal
  • Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal
  • Republic of Korea: Order of Civil Merit
  • Médaille de la Reconnaissance française
  • United Nations Headquarters Medal
  • Médaille d' Honneur de la Croix Rouge française
  • Decoration for Order and Peace, 1945-1949 from the Netherlands
  • Red Cross Decoration from Greece

We have not been able to identify several of her ribbons, such as the last ribbon on row two and the first ribbon on row three. Let us know if you recognize them!

A military uniform with colourful ribbon-bars on the left, including Canadian flags.

Lotta’s Uniform on display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Canadian War Museum, Artifact No.19860129-028

In a significant way, Lotta’s uniform captures a major theme of Peace: the Exhibition. Lotta was a devoted seeker of peace. She noted in 1969 that two-thirds of humanity faced hunger while the world spent $150 billion a year on armaments. However, she was also very comfortable in a uniform and working in military environments, often flying to war zones in military aircraft. In this way her uniform captures the diverse routes that Canadians have chosen in seeking peace.

Visitors to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 have a rare chance to see this iconic artifact until October 20 when Peace: The Exhibition closes and the uniform is returned to the Canadian War Museum.

A military uniform hanging in a glass display case, in an exhibition room that contains huge purple panels with archival images and text.

Lotta’s Uniform on display in Peace: The Exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Photo 2014