Florence Waren Hid From the Nazis by Dancing for Them

Performing under Nazi noses, two Jewish women were part of the Bal Tabarin music hall in Paris during World War II. On the right is Sadie Rigal, while Piroska Sekely is third from the right. –United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Florence Waren

Florence Waren was a dancer celebrated in both France and Germany during World War II. She performed in dance competitions and to cheer up captured French soldiers in German POW camps.

However many times the Nazis may have seen her perform, they never knew who she really was.

Waren was born Sadie Rigal in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1917, to a Jewish family. After seeing a performance by the world-renowned Ballets Russes as a child, Waren knew how she wanted to spend her life. For years, she took dance lessons and competed in her home country. In 1938, at age 21, Waren followed her dream to Europe, first in London, and then Paris.

Just a year later, she auditioned for the prestigious Bal Tabarin Music Hall in Paris, and created her new identity — Florence Waren. While the job didn’t make her rich, it was enough to pay for an apartment and for her to continue studying dance.

In the summer of 1939, with the encouragement of Pierre Sandrini, co-owner of the Tabarin, Waren returned to London to audition for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. She was accepted and told she would be “picked up” when the company came through Paris in December.

By December, World War II had been underway for three months. Waren’s dream, like millions of others, was shattered. But she wouldn’t give up, and refused her father’s offer of a ticket home to South Africa and safety.

Amid the German occupation of France in the summer of 1940 and rumors of atrocities, Waren attempted to flee to the countryside. However, like many foreigners, both Jews and gentiles, Waren found herself back in Paris with nowhere to go. Sandrini advised her not to register as a Jew, and she listened to his warning.

Because she was from South Africa — which made her a British citizen — Waren was taken to an internment camp in Besançon near the German border, along with thousands of other “enemy aliens” in France. For reasons that are unclear to historians, Waren was released and permitted to return to Paris in November 1941. Florence was required to “sign in” daily at the local police station. Stuck in Paris, she went back to work at the Tabarin.

Sadie Rigal and Frederic Apcar perform in the Parisian music hall, the Bal Tabarin. –United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Florence Waren

Then she met dancer Frederic Apcar.

Waren developed a dance act with Apcar. “Florence et Frederic” rose to be one of the top ballroom dance teams in occupied France. Despite being in the throes of war, the act successfully traveled throughout Europe. Along with singers Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf, and Maurice Chevalier, “Florence et Frederic” toured four French prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. After witnessing the heinous conditions of the camps, Waren returned to France with a suitcase full of illegal letters from prisoners to their families.

“Hiding in the spotlight” was her own means of survival, but Waren didn’t do it alone. Without the support, both tacit and active, of the people around her, she never could have maintained the lie. Most Jews in Europe weren’t able to find such loyal friends.

And Waren did more than concentrate on her own survival. She began working with the Resistance by transporting weapons, hiding Jews in her own apartment, and helping them find safe houses.

In 1944, shortly after her return from a trip to Berlin, Waren’s luck ran out. Her dance partner, Fred Apcar, had received word that Waren would be arrested for her activities, and rented a house in the surrounding suburbs of Paris for her and other Jewish performers to hide. Once again, her friends had saved her. Later that year, she witnessed US troops storm into Paris.

Three years after the war ended, “Florence et Frederic” made their debut in the United States, most notably performing at the Copacabana in New York. It was after a performance there that Florence fell in love with actor Stanley Waren. She decided to leave the act with Frederic and remain in New York with Waren. The couple married in 1949. Florence continued her career and eventually took to Broadway and television, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

“She led a rather adventurous life,” her husband told The New York Times in an interview after her death in August 2012. “Wherever she went, she somehow became part of the scene, and people helped her and she helped them.”

Written by Hannah Meyer, Program Coordinator, Division of the Senior Historian, US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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