Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A Canadian Hero in a Unitarian Uniform

Lotta Hitschmanova as she began service as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada in October 1946.

The specter of the United States attacking immigrants including many women and children—refugees from the violence and chaos of Central American  nations directly caused by this county’s military and covert operations—with tear gas and pepper spray as they seek safe haven and asylum is both a tragedy and disgrace.  Perhaps this is a good time to look back at a better response to the forlorn and desperate and to the dedicated work of a true hero.
If you live this side of the border to the Land of the Great White Grandmother, chances are that you never heard of Lotta Hitschmanova.  But you should learn about her.  She was awesome.
Canadians of a certain age will remember her for her once ubiquitous annual fund raising appeals on radio and television and in smartly produced short films for the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USCC) which she served as Executive Director for many years.
Her story begins in Prague when the Czech city was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on November 28, 1909.  Her birth name was Lotte Hitschmann.  Her father was a prosperous malt merchant and the secularized Jewish family lived in modest wealth and comfort.
She was a gifted student who excelled at the progressive and co-educational Stephans Gymnasium. She studied philosophy and mastered several European languages at the University of Prague and then went on to study political science and journalism at the Sorbonne in hopes of entering a career in international diplomacy.
In 1935 Lotte returned to Prague where she completed her Ph.D. studies and launched a successful career as a freelance journalist often contributing material to Czechoslovak, Rumanian, and Yugoslav newspapers.  As the menace of Hitler and Nazism rose she became noted for her outspoken anti-fascist beliefs and articles.  By 1938 she changed her name to the Slavic Lotta Hitschmanova as a protest to German hegemonic ambitions. 
When Germany annexed the Sudetenland Hitschmanova learned that she was on a list of hostile journalists to be detained.  She was forced to flee her homeland leaving her parents and a younger sister behind. She first fled to back to Paris and from there she went to Brussels, Belgium, where she resumed her journalistic career.  But the war kept catching up with her and for the next few years she alternated between a variety of journalism and humanitarian jobs while often finding herself a stateless refugee. By late 1941 she was in Marseilles in Vichy France where she worked as a secretary at charity for refugees.  It paid next to nothing and the tiny woman fainted on the streets of starvation after which she was taken to a clinic run by Unitarian Service Committee.

After being taken to an Unitarian Service Committee clinic in Marseilles, Hitschmanova went to work for the agency as a translator.  The USC was a rare beacon of hope for desperate refugees from all over Europe.  Here the agency distributes relief bundles.
It was a fortuitous match.  Soon she was volunteering her services with the USC as a translator and then as a liaison officer with the Czech relief agency, Centre d'Aide Tsechoslovaque.  Her work was valued by the USC, but officials recognized that she was still in danger.  In 1942 they arranged her escape from Europe via Lisbon on a converted freighter crammed with other refugees and headed to New York.
Like many Jewish refugees even with the help of the USC, Hitschmanova could not gain permanent refuge in the U.S.  After stopping in Boston to deliver highly sensitive documents detailing the dangerous work of the USC in Europe, she went to Canada, which offered her asylum.
She later recalled “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.”  Yet relentlessly resourceful, within two days she found employment as a secretary and three months later was in Ottawa where she worked as a Department of War Services postal censor.  She read the letters of German prisoners of war and scoured them for useful military intelligence.
Still deeply impressed by the selfless work of the USC, Hitschmanova joined the Unitarian Church of Ottawa.  She also continued her work for refugees with the Czechoslovakian National Alliance and by raising money for Czech War Services in London.  She regularly contributed articles to the Canadian press and made speeches on behalf of her causes.  Toward the end of the war she went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
All during the war she never gave up a desperate search for her parents and sister Lilly.  She learned that for a while her parents were held at Terezin, a model concentration camp used as a showplace for the Red Cross and international diplomats.  Then she got the devastating news that they had been taken from that relative comfort and safety and had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  Eventually she located her sister living in Palestine with her husband.  Both eventually joined her in Canada.
With no family to return to, Hitschmanova decided to remain in Canada.  She turned down several excellent job offers.  Instead, she determined to serve the uprooted refugees still in Europe.  In July 1945, she helped to organize the Canadian branch of the Unitarian Service Committee, which was affiliated with both American Unitarian Association and the Unitarian Church in Canada.  Senator Cairine Wilson, a liberal icon in Canada, was named the Honorary Chairwoman, but as Executive Director, Hitschmanova ran the show with systematic energy and efficiency.
At first registered under the War Charities Act the Canadian committee was restricted to fund raising only through Unitarian congregations and to individual Unitarians.  When the law changed in February 1946 Hitschmanova energetically began her public appeals citing the great need.  At first funds were directed to Czechoslovakia and France.
That spring she made her first annual tour to inspect the work in the field.  She adopted a military style uniform modeled after that worn by American WACs.  She found the outfits useful in gaining admission to even restricted areas.  Besides they were comfortable and made packing for her extended trips easy.  She wore the uniforms at home and abroad for the rest of her life.  They became her trademark as she rose as a public figure in Canada.
Despite her affection for the Boston based USC, it didn’t take long for her to come into conflict with its leadership.  They insisted that all field operations be headed by an American.  She felt that those on the ground and familiar with the situation knew best.  She preferred to empower local partner organizations and their leadership by providing them with needed funds and perhaps technical support.  Her secondary goal was to make those partner organizations self-sustaining and independent as quickly as possible.
There are three basic principles in the field of the art of giving aid. To come as an open-minded friend and good listener, when offering help; to say goodbye to a project when it can continue on its own; to serve with a personal touch, because a relationship of confidence must lift your aid beyond the realm of a simple business proposition and prove that you really care.
To accommodate that philosophy in 1948 she re-organized the Canadian Committee completely independent of not only the Boston based USC, but of the Canadian churches as well.  Despite its independent status, the USC Canada continued to draw support and volunteers from Unitarian congregations and most proudly considered it “ours.”

In the first full year of operations in 1946, Hitschmanova set a pattern which she would repeat yearly—three months of intense fund-raising in Canada, four months overseas to supervise programs and investigate possible new partners, and months at home reporting on her findings and producing an annual film about the Committee’s achievements.  That first year she raised $40,000 and collected 30,000 kg of clothing for distribution in the refugee camps.
She particularly homed in on the needs of children, making a project to supply prosthetic limbs to maimed victims a high priority, and establishing one of the first adopt-a-child sponsorship programs that became a model for many others. 
Hitschmanova with Korean orphans on one of her annual world-girdling inspection tours of  USCC humanitarian aid projects.  The organization expanded beyond Europe to include projects like this in Korea and others in India, Africa, and serving Palestinian refugees.
She found herself showered with honors.  According to a biographical sketch in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography by Joyce Thierry:
Dr. Hitschmanova received numerous awards, including the 1975 Woman of the Year for India by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. By this time, grateful governments around the world had acknowledged her work in their countries in a variety of ways: the Chevalier of Public Health from the Government of France and the Gold Medal from the Red Cross of France, 1950; the Medal of St. Paul from Greece, 1952; Public Service Medal from the Government of South Korea, 1962; Athena Mesolora Gold Medal from the Government of Greece, 1967; Officer of the Order of Canada, 1972; the Royal Bank of Canada Award, 1979; and Companion of the Order of Canada, 1980. In 1983, she received Officer of Meritorious Order of Mohlomi, Lesotho, and was only the third person to be given the Rotary Award for World Understanding. She refused to accept honorary doctorates from universities, saying she had worked hard enough in Paris and Prague to earn her own doctorate.
In 1982 after 37 years at the helm, ill health finally forced Hitschmanova to retire.  Sadly in her remaining years she suffered from Alzheimers.  She died of cancer on August 1, 1990 at the age of 79.  She was widely mourned across Canada and by the hundreds of thousands whose lives she touched around the world.  Her memorial service was held at her beloved Ottawa Unitarian Church.

Hitschmanova is so highly esteemed in Canada that she adorned the $100 bill.  She is the only Unitarian enshrined on a nation's currency and one of a relative handful of  women who were not heads of state or government given such an honor.
In perhaps an even more profound tribute to her vision the modern Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, heir to the old Boston based organization, now follows Hitschmanova’s model of partnering and nurturing organizations on the ground.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Revisiting Scrooge and Dickens’s Ghost Story Parable

Steve Connell seen here in the 2016 production as Scrooge returned to the role this year in A Christmas Carol at the Woodstock Opera House.

It is not yet December but the Christmas season is in full swing thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclaiming Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday of November instead of the last.  This year that meant that the First Sunday of Advent will fall 10 days after Turkey Day.  This year at the Murfin Manor had been festively decorated and the tree is up.  We have already gotten into the spirit at the festive Lighting of Woodstock Square on Friday night, we had a seasonal sermon about surviving holiday stress—but not, thank God the Bah Humbug Christmas sermon that is now so common among Unitarian Universalists—by the Almost Rev. Kevin DeBeck at the Tree of Life Congregation in McHenry, Sunday afternoon to early this morning we had an official blizzard for that White Christmas affect.
And on Saturday night Kathy Brady-Murfin and I took in a traditional seasonal theater presentation.
Over the past few years were have alternated between productions of The Nutcracker with A Christmas Carol at the Woodstock Opera House.  This year it was the Woodstock Musical Theater Company’s annual mounting of the Dickens yarn.  It may not have all of the grand spectacle of the Goodman Theater’s annual Christmas mounting or make you forget your favorite film version but this earnest effort has all of the virtues—and pitfalls—of lively community theater. 
It was certainly a handsome production.  Kathy Bruhnke’s costumes are lavish and spot on for early Victorian London.  A very clever set makes use of the small Opera house stage easily transitions to multiple locations.  That stage accommodates a 24 person cast including many children—a smart community theater knows it can sell plenty of seats to proud parents, relatives, and friends of juvenile performers.
Steve Connell as Scrooge and John McCall as Bob Cratchet both have professional theater experience and return in their respective role to anchor the cast.  The rest of the players are a mix of Opera House veterans and first timers.  The diversity of experience sometimes showed.
But the audience left the cozy, historic theater auditorium quite happy, satisfied, and presumably bursting with Christmas Spirit.
 Which brings us to consideration of why A Christmas Carol not only endures after all these years, but how it actually came to shape Christmas as the holiday we recognize today.

Charles Dickens wanted to do something about shocking early Victorian poverty in England like the notorious London slums.
To borrow a phrase from one of the author’s other books, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  I’m talking about the 1840’s in the early years of what is now recalled, usually through rose colored glasses, as the Victorian Era.  Britain mastered the world unchallenged since the final defeat of Napoleon more than 20 years before.  It presided over a world girdling Empire whose riches and treasures were pouring into the country.  It was ground zero of the industrial revolution, production of every sort of goods was on the upswing, and innovation was making consumer goods cheaper. 
The already very wealthy got wealthier.  So did a limited number of clever commoners.  A middle class, serving the administrative needs of government and corporations, was growing. 
But in the countryside tenant farmers were being evicted to make way for sheep to feed the humming textile mills.  Skilled weavers and other tradesmen found themselves replaced by whirring machines and plunged into poverty.  The displaced made their way with little hope to the teaming cities where they were crammed into unspeakable slums.  There was little chance for work for many of them and they could be—and were—disposed of immediately if they complained about 12 hour days or starvation wages.  Many turned desperately to begging, petty crime, and of course prostitution and vice of every sort.  In London tens of thousands of children lived by their wits on the street.
All of these poor folks were considered dangerous, useless burdens who deserved their fate because of a lack of moral fiber, natural indolence, and sloth.  If the Crown had given up on public hangings of 12 year old pickpockets, it was only because there was a whole continent—Australia—to populate with transported prisoners.  Otherwise the jails, workhouses, and cemeteries were filled.
Characteristic of prevailing attitudes was what would happen in Ireland just a handful of years later.  When the potato crop that fed the peasantry failed, British authorities steadfastly refused relief while hundreds of thousands died because charity would “undermine the moral fiber of recipients and sap them of the will to work.”  Sound sort of familiar?

Charles Dickens.
Anyway, this is the England that a successful 31 year old writer named Charles Dickens found himself in.  Once a child of the comfortably middle class when his father failed and was jailed for debt young Charles had been forced to leave his beloved studies and go to work in a shoe blacking factory at age 14.  The experience scarred him deeply and affected his whole world view. 
After achieving fame and some level of modest comfort for his serialized novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, Dickens decided to employ his fame to decry the condition and treatment of the poor, with which he was all too familiar.  After a tour of the Cornish mines which employed child laborers in dangerous conditions, and visiting a LondonRagged School for street urchins, He planned to pen a pamphlet to be called An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.  But finding an audience at a speech in Manchester covering the gist of his planned opus was bored and unresponsive, Dickens abruptly changed his plans.  He would recast the appeal as a fictional story.
Thus A Christmas Carol was born.  The author hastily scribbled the manuscript in just six weeks, barely finishing in early December 1843 in time to rush the manuscript to publication.
In setting his fictional appeal at Christmas, Dickens was being doubly counter-cultural.  It seems that the holiday, once the happiest of seasons, had fallen into disrepute and was in actual danger of being officially abolished from the calendar—for the second time. 
Christmastide had once been a popular event, the official occasion of Christ’s supposed birthday folded into ancient traditions from both Druidic and Roman times marked with singing, dancing, general merry making, drinking, and a sort of social-turn-the-tables in which masters and servants switched places for at least a day.  Oliver Cromwell and the scandalized Puritans put an end to that.  They outlawed the holiday and imposed draconian punishment on those discovered trying to celebrate, even in the privacy of their own homes.
Although the Restoration had put the religious celebration back on the calendar, its association with Popery—it was after all Christ’s Mass—discouraged celebration by “loyal” Anglicans and most Protestant Dissenters.  Over the years many customs vanished or were marginalized—the hanging of greens, country dancing, and caroling.  In fact the words for many traditional carols were lost until a fad for folklore began resurrecting them in the early 19th Century.  Christmas Day was generally considered a work day.  Factories and shops were mostly open, as were government offices and courts. 
After seeing some backsliding on Christmas celebrations—Queen Victoria’s new husband Albert, a Christmas loving German princeling, had erected a Christmas Tree at the Palace and the fashionable were taking up the custom—conservative Protestant  leaders energized by new round popular evangelism  and hostility to Catholics—were once again agitating for the holiday to be officially abolished.
Dickens himself was an apostate Anglican with no interest in the religious observation of the Nativity, which had caused the final alienation of his tenuous ties to his family.  He was at this point in his life associating and worshiping with Unitarians, the most radical of all of the Dissenting sects who rejected both the divinity of Christ and miracles like those in the Christmas story as distractions from “pure” Christianity.
He was however, influenced by the stirring of nostalgia for old time Christmas celebrations which seemed to him to be both more egalitarian and warmer in human sympathy.  Christmas had played a key part in his first success, The Pickwick Papers in which Mr. Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a lonely and mean-spirited sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins who show him the past and future—obviously a seed for his new story.
Without the trappings of religious conversion on which to hang is tale of personal and social redemption, Dickens fell back on elements of spiritualism, which was widely popular, especially in the middle classes at the time and even imbued with some pseudo scientific justification.  Not that Dickens personally believed in communication with the dead, but in the spirit of old time fairy tales, the kind with pointed morals, he was quite willing to employ them as literary devises.
Thus was born a Christmas ghost story, as frightening in some parts as any fashionable gothic novel.  But the terror came less from the spirits—despite Jacob Marley’s groans and chains and the fearsome, black, and silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—the familiar specter of Death as depicted since the time of the great Plague—than from the poverty of the Cratchits and their bleak prospects, the alienation of family and love, and the hardening of a miserly heart.
Redemption is accomplished when Scrooge is re-united with his own humanity.

The first edition of A Christmas Carol with hand-tinted illustrations.
With, you should pardon the expression, great expectations, Dickens arranged to have an edition printed at his own expense taking as payment from the publisher, Chapman & Hall a percentage of sales rather than the customary lump sum.  He commissioned original engravings for a fine edition, including some tinted with color, to be bound in leather and gilt edged.  He quarreled with the publisher and the book had to be re-made with new end-papers and cover to meet Dickens’s exacting specifications, delaying publication to within days of the holiday.  All of this cut deeply into the profits the author hoped to earn to support his young wife.
But the book was finally published on December 19, 1843 and was an immediate popular and critical success.  The first edition sold out almost immediately and seven more were printed the same year.  Pirates soon had cheap paper editions out, which the ever vigilant Dickens fought with law suit after law suit.  He authorized a stage version which premiered in February 1844.  Six other unauthorized productions were soon playing simultaneously in London.
America, except for a handful of fans, was at first cool to the book, largely because the young nation felt insulted by Dickens’s account of his first tour there a year before.  Christmas, especially in New England, was still suspect in much of the country.  But over the next decades that would change.  One after another Christmas traditions were introduced and spread.  By the time Dickens returned for a post-Civil War tour, both he and the book were beloved.

Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim has always plucked hearts.
The little book was always Dickens personal favorite.  He staged his first public reading with it in 1858.  Such readings were a principle income for him for the next decades.  His last reading, in ill health on March 15.1870 in London, was a final sharing of A Christmas Carol.  He died in the manor home in Kent which his literary work had earned him, on June 8, 1870 at the age of only 58.
A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print.  It is perennially popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was perhaps the main engine of Christmas becoming a popular, sentimental, and family holiday all over the English speaking world.
In addition to countless stage productions there have been at about 30 film versions for theatrical or television release, the first in 1901.  Alistair Sym in the title role of Scrooge in 1951 is thought by many to be the definitive version.  Other notable versions include those with Reginald Owen in 1938, Albert Finney in a 1970 musical, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart in two notable TV versions, and the horrible Disney disaster with Jim Carey in 2003.

Many consider the 1953 British production with Alastair Sim to be the definitive film version.
There have been multiple musical versions, three operas, notable radio broadcasts—especially one broadcast annually with Lionel Barrymore—and several animated versions.  In addition there have been parodies, and just about every TV sitcom that lasts a few seasons eventually does an episode in which a principle character is visited by Christmas ghosts.
Yes, A Christmas Carol, that odd seasonal tale devoid of both traditional religion on one hand and Santa Claus, magical animals, or elves on the other, maintains a grip on our imagination after all these years.  Maybe because it speaks to the real spirit of the holiday better than any other tale.