Nova Scotia

Elisabeth Bigras's story of fleeing Nazi-occupied France

Elisabeth Bigras has led a remarkable life: she was Quebec's first female psychiatrist and her specialty was helping girls turn into confident women. But her life might have had a much different outcome – if the Gestapo had had its way, and many brave people hadn't stepped in to help her along the way.

Nova Scotia woman recalls being smuggled out of country as child

Elisabeth Bigras now lives in Nova Scotia, but fled Nazi-occupied France as a child. (Courtesy Karin Cope)

Elisabeth Bigras has led a remarkable life: she was Quebec's first female psychiatrist and her specialty was helping girls turn into confident women.

Now retired, she lives in West Quoddy on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore after sailing to the province 20 years ago and falling in love with the region.

But her life might have had a much different outcome – if the Gestapo had had its way, and many brave people hadn't stepped in to help her along the way.

In 1940, Bigras was five years old and living in Nazi-occupied France with her mother, sister and aunt. They were renting a room in Brittany, but were reported to the Gestapo as suspected spies because Bigras’s mother listened to BBC Radio.

"So the Gestapo came one morning and began asking questions," Bigras told CBC's Information Morning.

The family turned to the landlord for help. A pig farmer by trade, he also happened to be the chief of the French resistance for that part of France.
Elisabeth Bigras was Quebec's first female psychiatrist. Now retired, she lives in West Quoddy in Nova Scotia. (Courtesy Karin Cope)

"Immediately our landlord said, 'I will take you tomorrow in the night at three o'clock in the morning in my truck full of pigs to Bordeaux,'" Bigras says.

Bordeaux bordered free France in the south and occupied France in the north. The landlord knew someone who would smuggle the family across the border at Bordeaux.

"Even though I was five years old, I remember this intense anxiety," Bigras says. "We were to do exactly what they told us, to not speak and to not ask anything."

Bigras's mother dressed her daughter in three dresses. She wrapped Bigras's newborn baby sister in a roll of bed covers.

‘Who goes there?’

Bigras, her sister, two cousins, her aunt and her mother were loaded into the front of the truck. There was also another boy, Bigras's age, who was being taken care of by the family. The noisy pigs were in the back of the truck.

Off they went to Bordeaux in the middle of the night. The truck drove the family right to a brothel - where they stayed for a week. Bigras recalls that the prostitutes took very good care of the children and bought them food.

"I remember how lovely they were. How sweet they were with the children," she says.

They brought food and helped Bigras's mother and aunt.

Then one night a man driving a black Mercedes showed up. The family was instructed to go with him; he was going to smuggle them over the border.

The border was an old railway track, which was guarded by a German soldier. The guard had a regular pattern, walking back and forth every 15 minutes.

The smuggler timed the crossing, hiding the family in the shrubs by the track, then shuttling them to the other side when the coast was clear. The family was then told to head for the forest and take a path.

They thought they were lost. At one point they thought they had turned themselves around in the forest and might have returned to the border of German-occupied France.

"But immediately they heard a voice saying in a very American French, ‘Qui va là?’ which means, ‘Who goes there?’" Bigras says.

They realized they had made it to the border of free France. Once there, the family was brought into a small hut with a fireplace.

"It was November you know. We were very cold. Our noses... our fingers were freezing," she says.

They were given "huge pieces of bread with jam... it was absolutely extraordinary."

From there the family walked four kilometres to another town, where an elderly women put them up for the night. The next morning they took the train to southern France where Bigras's grandmother lived.

Looking back, Bigras believes she would have ended up in a German concentration camp, such as Auschwitz, if it weren't for her landlord and the man who smuggled the family across the border.

She doesn't think she would have survived and believes her choice to become a child psychiatrist is because of her own experience being terrified as a child.

Bigras finds it difficult to hear about the conflicts going on today around the world. She says she is always thinking of the plight of the children.

She will turn 80 years old on Nov. 15. She says if she weren't "so old I probably would like to do something to help these people."

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