Flora M. Singer

I remember reading Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl as a kid, feeling the fear that the teenager faced while she and her family hid in an attic for years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. 

That book brought to life the terror of those times for me in a way that history textbooks could not. And so it has been for generations of students, including those who read the book in seventh grade in Montgomery County Public Schools.

But what local students may not know is the story of another young Jewish girl who spent three years hiding with her two sisters from the Nazis in a Belgium convent. 

Imagine being 10 years old and cowering under potato sacks in a root cellar, trying desperately not to cough, as Nazis searched for you by poking their sharp bayonets into the cloth. 

Imagine seeing your mother only sporadically for three years, and when you did, being unable to  hug her or even acknowledge that you knew her for fear of being discovered and taken away.

Those experiences are just part of the story of a girl who grew up to publish a memoir, raise a family in Silver Spring and Potomac—and to teach foreign languages at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and Albert Einstein High School in Kensington.

The story of Flora M. Singer, who died in 2009 at age 79, is an inspirational one that many more students are likely to hear now that MCPS has opened a new school named after her in Silver Spring. The Flora M. Singer Elementary School is believed to be the first in the country to be named after a Holocaust survivor.

You can learn about Flora’s story of survival during World War II, her gifts as a teacher for 14 years and her willingness to travel the country educating people about the Holocaust through a short video about her life produced by MCPS.

But there’s so much more to the story of this remarkable woman who spent her life dedicated to learning and teaching others. Among her many accomplishments: Along with two other teachers, she developed an accredited course on teaching the Holocaust for MCPS teachers.

“The focus of the course was to make teachers comfortable with the content and the kinds of questions that students might ask,” teacher Robert Hines says in the MCPS video. “I believe that we were one of the first, if not the first, school systems to offer a Holocaust program and Flora was an integral part of starting that program.”

The kindness of those who helped Flora and her sisters survive a total of five years of hiding kindled a belief in the goodness of people that inspired her throughout her life, according to her daughter, Sandra Singer Landsman of Potomac.

After the war, Flora and her sisters were reunited with their mother. In 1946, they sailed to New York City, where they were then reunited with Flora’s father, who had left Belgium eight years earlier.

Flora taught herself English by checking out books from the library. A few years later, she married Jack Singer and had two children. Singer, a salesman, eventually moved the family to Silver Spring, so he could help a relative run a bagel business, and then to Potomac. 

When her kids were older, Flora earned a bachelor’s degree in French culture and language, and then a master’s degree, from the University of Maryland. She took a teaching job with MCPS.

One day, when she was returning to her car at the University of Maryland, she saw something stuck on the windshield. It was a flyer that called the Holocaust a hoax.

“My mother felt a chill down her spine. Something in her changed. She felt that she had to do something,” Landsman said.

And so began Flora’s mission to educate anyone who would listen about the Holocaust: she traveled the country to give talks, appeared on TV, and volunteered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

She never stopped researching every aspect of the Holocaust, from Adolph Hitler to those who risked their lives to rescue Jews, trying to understand why it happened, said Landsman, who is re-editing her mother’s memoir, Flora, I Was But a Child

And Flora never forgot Father Bruno, a Franciscan monk who brought the three sisters to the convent’s orphanage, or the nuns who protected the girls. Later in life, she would return to Belgium to visit the nuns and push for her saviors to be honored by the state of Israel. 

Flora always made sure that her children knew her story—and that they were exposed to the experiences that she missed during those years hiding from the Nazis. 

“She was a fantastic mother,” Landsman said.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com