By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Flora Singer had to tell her story. She told it before crowds of teachers. She told it before schoolchildren and their parents. And she always told it while displaying the worn and tattered yellow star she was forced to put on her clothes, marking her for inevitable death as a Jewish girl living in Nazi-occupied Belgium in the early 1940s.
She survived, and became a foreign-language teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools. In the remnants of her Eastern European accent, she often recounted how she made it through the Holocaust -- and how in many ways she did not.
Flora Mendelowitz, as she was born in 1930, was 11 when she was forced into hiding with her mother, Fani, and two younger sisters to avoid the death camps. Her father had managed to escape to the United States, with the hope of enlisting in the U.S. Army in an attempt to save his family. But he was never sent back to Europe.
As the eldest daughter, Flora would make clandestine trips to France with her mother to smuggle back food for the family. She once hid in a vegetable crate stashed on the back of a truck to avoid the Gestapo.
As the situation grew more dire, Benedictine nuns and monks helped hide the girls in orphanages, apartments, Catholic schools and convents throughout Belgium. George Ranson, a businessman, provided false documents and a factory job for Fani. Father Bruno Reynders, a Catholic priest, who is credited with saving the lives of more than 300 Jewish children, made sure the Mendelowitzes remained safe. They did.
After the war, the Mendelowitz family came to New York in 1946 and reunited with David Mendelowitz.
Mrs. Singer, 78, who died Feb. 25 at her home in Potomac of complications from a stroke, had settled in the Washington area with her husband, Jack, and lived a relatively a low-key existence, savoring the freedom and comfort she never had as a young girl.
But the early years of her life were often on her mind.
In the early 1980s, when Mrs. Singer found a flier on her car from a white supremacist group denying the Holocaust, she decided the time had come for her to share her story.
She teamed up with two other educators in Montgomery County schools, Sue Shotel and Bob Hines, to create a curriculum for training the county's teachers on how to teach the Holocaust. She also began to accept public speaking engagements, sharing her story with students and organizations across the country.
She would often tell the story of how she saw an elderly Jewish man kicked to death by fascist youths.
"While one Black Shirt pulled the old man by his beard, two others pulled his peyot, his side curls," she wrote in her 2007 memoir, "Flora: I Was but a Child." "They then threw him to the ground in the middle of the street, and kicked him with their boots as he lay there helpless, screaming in Yiddish to God 'Raboyneh Sheloylem . . . helf mir!' (Creator of the Universe, help me!). One of the fascists jumped on the old man's abdomen and danced on his prostrate body. Soon the old man fell silent."
She told the publication Washington Jewish Week that she thought about the Holocaust -- including the rape of her mother by German soldiers -- almost every day of her life.
"I was then, and continue to be, bewildered and astonished at the extent of the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another," she said.
Her memoir was published by Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Survivors' Memoirs Project in 2007, one year after she suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, wrote the book's preface.
"The saddest part of Flora's life, besides the terrible youth that she had, was the end of her life, when she lost her ability to communicate, which is what she did the best," Shotel said.
In 2007, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote that the book is "the ultimate lesson of all Holocaust studies."
Her daughter, Sandra Landsman of Potomac, said that her mom, while not a vengeful person, was most proud that she escaped the Holocaust and later had her own family.
"She told me, 'Sandy, this is my revenge against Hitler,' " Landsman said.
To see more photographs of Flora Singer during World War II and in later years, visit The Washington Post obituaries blog, Post Mortem.