(Edith Piaf flanked by Frederic Apcar and Florence Waren)
Navigate to News section

Florence Waren: Hiding in the Spotlight

The famous Jewish dancer was a fixture in Nazi-occupied Paris

Adam Chandler
August 06, 2012
(Edith Piaf flanked by Frederic Apcar and Florence Waren)

The story starts simply enough:

She was born Sadie Rigal in Johannesburg on March 28, 1917, one of seven children. Her father was a traveling salesman for a department store. Her mother, who had been a teacher in New York, had a breakdown after the death of her youngest son during an influenza epidemic in 1919 and was committed to a mental hospital in South Africa. Mr. Rigal raised the family alone.

But how Sadie Rigal became Florence, one-half of the famous dancing duo “Florence et Frederic” and a Jewish star in Nazi-occupied Paris, is more complicated. At the urging of the owner of the Bal Tabarin Music Hall–where she danced–Waren did not register her religion with the police, as Jews were required to do when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940.

Because she was South African (and therefore a British citizen) the Nazis considered her an enemy alien and she was “arrested and interned for months in a louse-infested prison in Besançon.” Waren then returned to the Bal Tabarin, which had quickly became a Nazi mainstay. She paired up with Frederic Apcar and became famous, appearing on stage with the likes of Édith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.

While she stayed precariously hidden in the spotlight, Waren also risked much. She helped other Jews remain hidden and ran weapons to the French resistance.

Ms. Waren had friends in the Resistance and began to help them, hiding and transporting guns, hiding Jews in her apartment or helping them find their way from one safe house to another. After performing in Germany in a camp for French prisoners of war, she carried home a suitcase full of their letters to relatives, an act for which she could have been arrested.

After the war, the French government declared her a “privileged resident.” Waren died last month in New York at age 95, but was given the formal NYT obit treatment this past weekend.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.