The wooden docks at the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, are saturated with the tears and footprints of children forced to flee their homeland during World War II. Their trip to our fair country is an arduous one, tots and teens enduring unthinkable conditions in the bellies of ships bouncing through turbulent Atlantic waters. Some of these wee ones have their mommies. Most do not.
Sadly, many émigrés never do make it to safe shores. On Friday, September 13, the SS City of Benares, one of 20 ships in Convoy OB-212, leaves Liverpool, England, for Quebec. On board are 191 passengers, 90 of which are children, along with 216 officers and crew.
Before ever reaching the protection of western shores, the SS City of Benares, flagship of the convoy, is fired upon by a German U-Boat, sinking the vessel. Any that do survive are left to face the bitter tortures of a cold and stormy Atlantic Ocean.
More often than not, Halifax was the first stop for ships carrying precious mortals. Passengers would arrive at Pier 21, then have to find their way to their final destinations, wherever that might be across Canada’s immense landscape. One such passenger traveling by himself was a seven year old boy named Étienne, and this is his story.
Inspired by true events, No Passport for Étienne is the fictional account of a child from German occupied France who, in 1941, got on a ship to Canada, leaving behind his mère and père, never to see them again. It’s also Étienne’s exposé of the successes, struggles, and betrayal of his life in Canada since that fateful day.
‘m so, so hungry. That woman holding a baby. . . will she give me food?
Or, maybe the lady with the big hat beside her will feed me. The lady is not happy. Her boy is crying and stamping his feet. I wonder what is wrong with him. Maybe he does not like his mama’s hat.
The woman. . . she looks at me, and now at her baby. I be good, very good, like ma mère says I ought. I smile. I don’t stare or point, like ma mère says I ought not. Mother Mary will help me, or my angel. I pray, like ma mère does.
I wish ma mère were here. Why did she push me onto this stinky boat? Why did she not come with me? Will she be waiting for me when the boat stops bumping up and down? Why is it jumping so much? And, why does it smell so awful? Where is it going? Where will I sleep?
Ma père wore strange clothes to take me to this boat. Why? He looked different, like a soldier. . . not a bad soldier but a good soldier. He was not happy, just like the lady with the crying boy over there. Ma père had big tears on his face. I hung onto his hand. I squeezed it hard. I didn’t want to let go. Ma père let me squeeze his hand until ma mère shoved me into all the people climbing up to get on the ship. She shoved me behind the woman with the baby, and who is looking at me.
Does the woman with the baby know ma mère et ma père? Will she give me some of her food? I saw bread and cheese in her bag. Will she give me a little, a taste, a small bite? I am so hungry.
She is nodding at me. I’ll stand up and be tall, like ma père is, and then she will see me for sure. She is still nodding and smiling. She does not speak. I will take one step or maybe two towards her.
Her smile is growing bigger. She is happy to see me moving to her. Step three, step four, and one more step. . . If her smile grows really big, I will step even closer.
She is looking at her bag, then at her baby, then at me. Her smile is nice. It grows with my steps.
I am stepping carefully, trying to get closer, but there are children sleeping or sitting or talking all around my feet. I do not want to step on them. I am going slowly and I am being ever so careful. It would hurt if I stepped on their fingers or hair or arm or leg or foot. They might get mad and shout at me. I do not like shouting. Ma père and ma mère do not shout, and they do not let me shout.
They say that smiling is best, except when the mean soldiers are near. Then, ma père et ma mère look at the ground when they walk, just like I am watching the ground so I do not step on anyone.
Some of the children near my feet smile back at me. They think I smile at them. I do not tell them I am smiling at the nice lady with the baby.
“Hello, child,” the nice woman with the quiet baby whispers to me. Her voice is soft, kind. Maybe she does not want to wake the baby. Her baby keeps very still. The bumping ship does not wake it. I’d like to sleep like her baby. Maybe we will all get beds to sleep on, like I have at home. Ma père built me a bed out of wood with a real mattress, and I miss it.
I smile at the woman. She reaches for my hand, the hand that I cannot use for printing when I am at school. She holds it gently. She smiles, then lifts my hand into her bag.
My fingers touch the stick of bread, and suddenly, my stomach makes noises. The woman presses my hand into the bread and together, we tug off a chunk. She lets go of my hand and smiles and nods. This means I can take the bread.
As I start to pull the chunk out of her bag, she puts her finger to her lips and stares at me hard, then looks at all the other children around my feet. Ma mère would do that to me when the mean soldiers passed by our house. It means I’m supposed to be very quiet and not let anyone see what I am doing.
I pull the chunk of bread slowly towards my chest, praying to Mother Mary to not let anyone see the treasure that I have. The woman pats her sleeping baby, lifting her head away from me, looking over the crowded room. Then, she pulls me in close, her bunchy skirt and jacket almost smothering me. I don’t mind. I feel safe.
Mother Mary is listening to me. . . the woman with the baby did give me food.
Sky. . . clouds. . . I breathe again! My legs. . . they are free! They are not crunched up anymore! But, I do not run. I will not run. If I run, my pants might fall off. They grew bigger on the ship. My shirt grew bigger also. I hold my pants up with the hand that I cannot use for printing or drawing.
Mother says to stay close. I follow.
Mother gives a man a book, a small book, so small that it fits in her hand. The man does not care about me. The man does not care about Mother’s baby.
Mother says I can call her ‘Mother’ in this new land. I hear the man who looks at her small book call her Jeanne Marie. On the ship, Mother’s friend with the big hat and the grumpy boy called her Naomi. She would say the name softly, but I could still hear. I have good ears. Ma père told me so. Maybe Mother’s small book does not have Naomi written beside Jeanne Marie because maybe there is no room.
Ma mère’s name is Mama. If she had a small book like Mother, it would say, Mama. The man who lets Mother and her baby and me into this land would call ma mère, Mama, not a name like Jeanne Marie or Naomi.
Mother tells the man who looks at her small book that I am Étienne. She tells the man her baby is Rene. The man does not care.
Mother with quiet Rene and I leave the big ship. My legs wobble on the wooden footpath, but I smile because they are working like they should. Some children fall as they leave the ship. Their legs are not working like they should because they sat on their legs too long, crunched up in the ship for the bumpy ride on the ocean that took too many days. Mother told me to use my legs and walk on the ship. I listened to Mother and my legs work like they should.
Mother’s baby is too small to walk, so she carries the baby on her side, always with the same arm. She uses the same arm like mine that I do not draw pictures or print with. I like drawing pictures with my hand on that arm, but when I do, the teacher in my school slaps my hand with her wooden ruler. It hurts. It makes my fingers burn red. I do not draw as well with the correct hand, but those fingers are saved from Madame Boivin’s hits.
Madame Boivin is my teacher at school. She is mean. She hits many children, especially Other Children. Other Children do not look like me. They do not talk like me. They say words I do not know. They come from away. Madame Boivin tells them to go back to their away home, but they stay in our land. The mamas and papas of Other Children did not push them onto the big ship like ma mère did. There were no Other Children on the ship with me. I looked for Other Children, but I saw not one.
“Where do we go, Mother?”
“À ma sœur, Étienne, à ma sœur. Walk quickly. Darkness comes.”
Mother nods, and walks faster. I grab onto her skirt with my printing hand. It pulls me along so I do not use my legs to run.
“Où est ta sœur?”
“On train. We hurry. Must get train.”
“We ride train?”
“Oui, Étienne, oui.”
Mother’s skirt pulls my legs faster. They are almost running.
Rene is bouncing in Mother’s arms. Rene is laughing. I like Rene. I wish ma mère et ma père had a baby like Rene. I would smile if we had had a Rene. Ma père says it is good not to have a baby because of the mean soldiers in our land.
On the ship, thinking about ma père et ma mère, my heart would hurt and make tears in my eyes, like ma père had on his face when I followed Mother and Rene onto the boat. Mother would hold me and tell me that ma mère et ma père miss me very much. Maybe if they had a Rene, they would smile and ma père would not cry.
My Canadian mother, Naomi, or Jeanne Marie as her passport said, passed away on a cold December night, right before Christmas, her favourite time of year. I miss her still, and remain ever grateful that she raised me as her own. Many of the children on our ship were not as fortunate, having ended up in orphanages.
I never did see or hear from ma mère or ma père again, and to this day, I do not know for certain what ever happened to them. This was definitely not from a lack of trying. Believe me, I tried!
Montreal was home for me until I turned eighteen. Living with Mother and Rene made for a good life. Mother was a professor at McGill University. Rene was the little ‘brother’ that I treasured dearly. He would eventually practice medicine.
At fifteen, I wanted to make some extra spending money, so I got a job working on the shipping docks at Canadian Pacific rails. I saved every penny I made for the day when I could move out West. I wanted to see more of this country that I now called home. Everything I learned about Canada whet my appetite to venture out. So, on September 10th, 1952, I did just that. Why specifically September 10th? Because I wasn’t about to miss out on experiencing Montreal’s first television station broadcast on September 6th.
I rode the train out West, and such a wonderful introduction it was to the varied parts of this great nation. It was a lengthy trip, giving me time to make new friends along the way, and to see so many different things.
Finally, arriving in Edmonton, Alberta, I was immediately hired by CP Rail. I found an apartment, learned to cook for myself, and with my first paycheck, I bought a new bed with a large mattress. I saved my money so I could buy a new sofa and some basic tools like a good hammer, wrenches, and screwdrivers.
At the beginning of December, I attended CP’s annual Christmas Staff Party where I met a fine young woman named Kate. She just happened to be the Plus-1 with her father who just happened to be on the board for CP. Kate… beautiful, smart, and so quick with witty come-backs… I was smitten.
Life was good. . . I was a working man, I was making decent money, I had my own place, and I was in love.
Kate had a job with Alberta government. She was two years older than me, but that didn’t matter to either of us. I loved her all the same. We married three years later, on my twenty-first birthday, or at least on the day that Mother Jeanne Marie, Rene and I had celebrated as my birthday for the past fourteen years.
On our honeymoon in Banff, Kate came up with the idea that I leave CP, take my savings and start my own construction business. She and others had noticed that I enjoyed building things, doing carpentry, electrical, and so on.
Leave CP? I had to think about that seriously. CP was a major part of my life for the last seven years. It was because of CP that I met Kate. Could I really make a go of it, running my own company?
Tough work it is to own and operate a company, and tougher still to hand it over to a stranger upon retirement. Yes, I, Étienne, am retired, and so is Kate. Sixty years of hard work, and I have to say that I’m enjoying life with my mate who remains as independent and feisty as the young bride I fell in love with.
It was Kate’s gift for my sixty-fifth surprise birthday party that turned our lives upside down. Kate thought it would be nice to go to France and visit where I grew up. She bought the airplane tickets and arranged accommodation and transportation throughout the country. We’d be there for a month, enough time to retrace childhood steps, visit museums, and perhaps manage to connect with family that might still be living.
I had been so busy with building my construction company during Alberta’s boom years that I couldn’t conceive of ever leaving the job for any length of time, especially to go overseas for an entire month. The construction business is only profitable if its employees are dedicated and loyal. I had learned at the upstart that not all employees were as committed as I was to making a go of things.
I often worked seven days a week, sixteen hours or more a day in order to make deadlines. Delays in a project cost everyone, especially a builder like me. Workers wanted higher wages. Product prices were rising because of demand. My reputation was always on the line. Competition was steep… new construction companies forever challenging my bids on projects. It was a rat-race to stay on top. Now, finally retired, maybe Kate and I could take a vacation, a real vacation.
Going to France became an obsession. I was as excited about this trip as I was at eighteen when moving out West. To make this trip happen, I was going to need a passport.
I applied to the Government of Canada for what would be my first ever passport. The application required a birth certificate. I had none. I told my story to passport agents. I submitted affidavits, recounting my history. My application was rejected.
Kate reached out to the government connections she had remained in touch with, hoping they could gather information from French authorities about my date and place of birth. No cigar! We hired a lawyer specializing in immigration. Dead end.
Anger filled my days. After all, I was a successful, law abiding businessman who dutifully paid taxes to the Canadian government for six decades! I continued to donate to Canadian charities. I volunteered in my community. I can proudly say that I’ve never even had a speeding ticket or committed any crime. Yet, I couldn’t get a Canadian Passport. I couldn’t visit France, the place where ma mère et ma père had loved me so dearly.
Over the next dozen or so years, Kate and I spent many of our days searching for a way to obtain a Canadian passport for me. Kate flew to France where she met with French government and embassy officials. She went to the village I was raised in and spoke with locals as well as the parish priest. Unfortunately, the reverend that might have baptized me had long since passed. Any remaining documents that were kept in the church were fragile, poorly organized, and mostly tattered beyond legibility. That vein of inquiry ended abruptly. Kate returned home empty handed.
It was one fateful June day in 2010 when our search took on new meaning. Enjoying a cup of coffee that morning at the kitchen table, our hearts flew into our mouths as the front door smashed open, releasing six fully armed CSIS agents followed by a slew of local police barging into our home. With guns pointed at Kate and me, and with shouted commands thrust into our ears as we lay our bellies flat on the floor, our hands were cuffed behind our backs.
Jolted to our feet, we were forced outside, encountering the glares of neighbours and friends, their cell phones flashing along with the red and blue police lights as we were each shoved inside an unmarked vehicle.
Branded as terrorists, Kate and I succumbed to a grilling that mentally and emotionally remains unforgiveable. The horror of that day can never be forgotten, even if every so often I’ll admit that my memory slips when I can’t put a name to a face.
We were never charged by CSIS or local police. We never received an apology from them either. And, I remained without any hope of getting a passport.
I was angry. I fought bitterness and the urge to retaliate. I prayed mightily. I had to find a way to move forward, to accept my demise, to stop the inner voice that continued to squeal, Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this? One of the ways that kept me wanting to get out of bed each morning was to think of my friend, Luis.
Luis was a boy I had known while growing up in France. I thought often of Luis when I was on the boat coming to Canada, but all I could do was pray that he was safe. I would wonder. . . Did he end up in England or Spain? Did he travel by ship to Canada, like I did, or to the United States or Australia? Was he on a ship that didn’t make it? Or, worse yet, had the Nazis taken him?
One day, while in high school, a new student was introduced. Of all the miracles that could possibly happen, this one lifted my heart beyond measure. The new student was my childhood friend, Luis. Somehow, Mother Mary and our angels knew the value of resurrecting our childhood friendship.
We, two teenage boys, cried as we embraced right there outside a Montreal high school classroom, not caring who was watching or laughing at us. Time and distance had not rutted the childhood bond we once had shared.
In 1941, Luis, as he tells it, escaped the Nazis via Switzerland. He’d often recount bits and pieces of the terror he felt hiking through the Alps with other boys from small villages in France. Even now, whenever we chat on the phone, he inserts a recollection or two of those horrifying days.
When the Nazis occupied France, groups of children of all ages would suddenly disappear. Once the French Resistance became aware of missing children and the atrocities they were subjected to, it set out to stop the abductions, find the children and free them.
Georges Loinger and his cousin, a French mime, Marcel Marceau, who on a side note became the most famous of mimes, were well connected to the French Resistance and committed to doing their part to get children out of France and into Switzerland.
Luis tells the story of how he and a group of boys escaped, dressed as Boy Scouts. Marcel Marceau taught the boys German poems and songs so that any Nazi SS soldiers they encountered would think these French lads were actually German schoolboys on a designated hiking trip.
The mime and his cousin knew how important it was for Nazi SS officers to keep their uniforms clean, so they hid the boys’ IDs inside sandwiches that oozed mayonnaise. Each time Luis recounts the story, the amount of mayonnaise grows, as does his laughter at the memory of the SS men grunting at the white goo dripping on the boys’ hands.
Luis arrived in Canada with his mayonnaise protected ID. That ID enabled him to eventually obtain a Canadian Passport, a passport now filled with stamps from Luis’ many trips to France over the years.
He would fill me in on his ventures there. Unfortunately, he could not find information as to what had happened to my parents. There were rumours, many rumours that the Germans had taken them, and most probably the rumours were true. Like the missing children, my parents disappeared without a trace.
Also unfortunate, because Luis and I were friends, he was sought out and interrogated by CSIS about me, as was Mother Jeanne Marie. Luis’ frequent trips to France, Mother not able to prove that I was her son, along with Kate’s and my unwavering efforts to secure a passport, had led to the potential terrorism charges we faced that dismal June day.
REFUGEE HOME LE CHAMBON-SUR-LIGNON Southern France
From December 1940 to September 1944, the inhabitants of the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the villages on the surrounding plateau provided refuge for an estimated 5,000 people of 25 different nationalities fleeing Vichy authorities and the Germans.
The CSIS interrogation was too much for Mother. Her health began to deteriorate, and as I mentioned earlier, she is now at rest with the angels. It was at Mother’s deathbed that I learned about her French passport.
Aunt Hanna, Mother’s older sister that we had scrambled to connect with in 1941 on the train from Halifax to Montreal, and who on her ninetieth birthday was as sprightly as ever, shared the story that continues to nurture my gratitude for life in Canada each and every day. Mother’s birth name was Naomi Deborah. She and Hanna were Jews.
Hanna had immigrated to Canada before the Nazis occupied France. Hanna tried to get her parents to immigrate as well, but they would not leave their homeland.
It was during one of the Nazi raids that Hanna’s parents were captured and sent off to prison camps. Fortunately, Naomi had been staying with the Poirier family who had a chestnut farm in the south of France. When Monsieur Poirier received notice of the raids taking place, he made sure Naomi was well hidden.
It would not be long before the Nazis would take the chestnut farmer, his wife, teenage son and daughter to work in the north. The family had been busy in the fields when they were captured, their sleeping baby overlooked by the German soldiers who were barely older than the teens they were snatching away.
In the quiet that followed the seizing of the Poirier family, Naomi climbed out of her hiding place, only to find the family’s dinner still bubbling on the fire. She heard their baby crying.
Naomi gathered up the child and together enjoyed the stew that beckoned. Fed and content, the baby slept once again while Naomi let the fire die away and waited for dark.
Hours passed in the silence that blanketed the old house. Naomi held the baby when it stirred, fed it as needed, and tucked it back into its crib. Her thoughts raced to her mère and père, wondering where they had been taken, wondering when she’d see them again. She stroked Baby Rene’s red curls and wondered when his parents and siblings would return. The days melded into a week.
Early one morning, there was a knock at the door. Naomi’s heart raced. She listened. The knock came a second and third time. Naomi froze, with Baby Rene trapped in the vice grip of her arms. The baby let out a squeal. Naomi’s hand instantly covered his mouth while shaking her head at the child, her eyes piercing his innocence.
The squeal had been heard. A voice came from behind the protective wooden door. “It is me, Naomi. I come alone.”
Naomi, recognizing the voice of the woman from a neighbouring farm, tried to calm her frantic heart as she carefully lifted but a corner of the cotton drape to peek outside. No German trucks. No German soldiers. No guns. Naomi opened the door.
“Take the child, leave!” The woman darted around the room, grabbing a woven bag and stuffing into it a stick of bread, some cheese, wine, and a glass bottle filled with cow’s milk. She went to the bedroom and retrieved a hat for Rene. “Wrap him snug in the blanket. It is cold.”
The woman, known only as Janet, rummaged through papers she had found in the bedroom. “Here.” She thrust a passport into Naomi’s hands. “You now be Jeanne Marie Poirier. German fools, the lot!” She scowled, “To leave such papers behind!”
Janet eyed up Naomi’s dark hair and eyes, then the baby’s red curls. “It be God’s grace upon you. Come! Be quick!”
Upon learning Mother’s story, and having heard Luis’ numerous accounts of his escape from the clutches of the Nazis, any bitterness that has flitted through my heart and mind over the years about not having a Canadian passport, of how, in many ways, I remain confined in this free country, is swallowed up by the joy of being alive to share my story, of having experienced the love of my Kate, of having dear friends to celebrate with, and of enjoying these final years with the financial security for which I worked hard.
I, Étienne, remain a man without a passport, yet I have traveled this great land from east to west, north to south, from one coast to the other. The closest I’ve ever gotten to France is to visit Saint Pierre and Miquelon, islands owned by France just off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada’s most eastern province. Kate took me there to celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday, and a splendid time we did have! We spoke French, ate French food, even used Euros, as that’s all the ATMs would spit out.
I didn’t need a passport to get a taste of France on the archipelago known officially as Collectivité Territoriale de Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, or historically as Rum-Runners Paradise, for all a Canadian needs to enter is a driver’s license, and that I do have.
I, Étienne, may not have a passport, but my spirit is untethered! My life has been full. I hold no regrets.
Follow these links and learn more —
- S. S. City of Benares
- The Rescue of Children in Paris 1940-1945
- Marcel Marceau and his cousin, Georges Loinger Save 350
- Children of the Holocaust
- The Lost Children of 1940
- Growing up in Canada during WWII
- The Duplessis Orphans of Montreal
- Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Famous French Canadians, to name only a few –
- Artist Jean Paul Riopelle
- Astronaut Julie Payette
- Filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée
- High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, Louise Arbour
- Hockey Player Maurice “Rocket” Richard
- Métis Leader and founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel
- Singer Céline Dion
Listen to Amazing French Composers –
- Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns: Le Carnaval des Animaux, The Swan
- Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune
- Gabriel Fauré: Pavane, Op. 50
- Georges Bizet: Carmen – Habanera
- Maurice Ravel: Boléro
- Nadia Boulanger: Fantaisie pour piano et orchestre