Amazing story of dancer who witnessed horrors of the Holocaust

Flora Macdonald Whittaker, from Leigh, was still a teenager forging a career on the London boards when she joined the armed forces entertainment services.

Friday, 20th November 2020, 3:47 pm
Updated Friday, 27th November 2020, 12:16 pm
Flora as a young dancer

However, the role would end up being more life-changing than she could possibly have imagined as her work raising morale among the front-line troops also included visiting a camp where she saw survivors of the Nazi regime’s inhuman Final Solution after they had been liberated by the Allies.

She returned to civilian life after the war and told her family and friends almost nothing of what she had been through.

However, her memories of that horrific episode in history were preserved in the final years of her life as she shared her story with Andy Strowman, her neighbour in Harpenden in Hertfordshire.

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Flora went to a camp in Germany and saw the Nazis' inhumanity at first hand

Mr Strowman is now hoping to raise further awareness of her life and work in her home borough, having previously shared details of it with museums and school pupils.

He said: “She had tremendous courage. There is a stoicism about people of that age which is just inspirational.

“She was a lovely person. When I moved to Harpenden I saw she was on her own and I would go round to visit her.

“One day I told her there had been a Holocaust memorial and I had a lit a candle in the park and she told me she was there.

“She started to tell me about it. She didn’t really say anything about it to her family.

“They knew she had entertained but she never went into detail with anyone else.

“In these Covid times I think it will be uplifting for people to hear the story of someone who had so much courage.

“She deserves the recognition because she was a unique and special person.”

Mr Strowman said Flora, whose maiden name was Wilkins, was brought up in Butts Basin in Leigh and started developing joint problems aged three.

A doctor suggested an activity such as dancing would help to strengthen her and improve her mobility so she began attending classes on a Saturday morning which took place in the upstairs room above a butcher’s shop.

She took her ballet exams in Liverpool and was given a place at the Royal Ballet School in London.

In audio recordings which Mr Strowman made Flora recounted how, aged just 17, she joined the army entertainment service after recruiters came to the theatre where she was taking part in a musical.

Mr Strowman said she told him that she should really have been 18 to join the service but when she volunteered the man from armed forces entertainment said that as she would soon be 18 that would be close enough.

Her trip to the continent would bring her face to face with the horrendous attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.

Flora told Mr Strowman she believed she was taken to a concentration camp in Germany, although the military would not tell her exactly what it was or what it was called.

He said: “There was a lot of travelling around Germany by train.

“She had no idea what she was letting herself in for or what she was walking into, but she didn’t bat an eyelid.

“Some people who were there to entertain the troops risked their lives, like the soldiers.

“When she saw the camp it was a terrible shock for her.

“She managed to speak to some of the Holocaust survivors and some sneaked into the shows, which were principally for the soldiers.

“She remembered these people being very, very thin, and one little girl who kept curtseying and asking for chocolate but when she opened her mouth all her teeth were black.

“She told me how when they entered the camp there were flowers and gardens and it looked idyllic, but that was to trick people.

“When they got further in she saw these huge piles of clothes and shoes. That was what really upset her.

“Children were wandering around and there were families looking completely lost who didn’t have anywhere to go.

“She went to the sub camps and people were just walking out on the roads. It was a horrific story.

“She liked entertaining a lot. She wasn’t allowed to mix with the soldiers but she remembered that as they left the stage they would all be cheering for her and the rest of them, just like the scene in Schindler’s List.”

The audio recording was given to The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide but it did make its way to her home borough as it was loaned to the local museums and archive services for a group of children to listen to it after Mr Strowman had got in touch with the school.

Hannah Turner, service development officer for culture with Wigan Council, said the recording was a valuable example of a fascinating account of a hugely-significant moment in history which could so easily have been forgotten.

She said: “It is really interesting to hear how people from Leigh have gone out into the world and had these experiences.

“We think we know the story of World War Two but when somebody has a connection to it that brings it home just that little bit more.

“On the recording Flora talked about walking in through the gates, seeing the bins full of people’s belongings and seeing women crammed together and sleeping in underground rooms.

“She also wondered what became of the little girl who asked her for chocolate.

“If Andy hadn’t done this recording we might not have heard her side of the story.

“We are always keen for people to get in touch to tell us their stories and share their memories.

“If any more stories about Flora come to light we would like to hear them and encourage anyone who is interested to come in to the archives and learn about her story.”

An obituary notice said Flora died aged 87 in 2015 in Lincoln County Hospital and her husband Leonard had already died. She was described as being a mum to her daughter Kay, mother-in-law to Colin and grandma to Stephanie.

Mr Strowman said she was also a talented painter who enjoyed creating artworks.

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