Frieda Belinfante: The Jew who dressed up like a man and fought in the Dutch resistance

Frieda Belinfante was the first woman to conduct an orchestra in Europe, a Jewish woman who fought in the Dutch resistance, and also –  a lesbian who was fired from running the Orange County orchestra in California for living her life as an out lesbian, in the days where it was considered a mental disorder.

She was born in Amsterdam in 1904 and showed musical talent from a young age. She became a professional cello player at 17, in 1937 she became the first woman in the world to conduct an orchestra when she was appointed as artistic director and conductor of Concertgebouw.

She got married in 1931, but divorced shortly after, when she came out of the closet to her husband. She didn’t look back after her divorce, and only had relationships with women from then on. Her longest relationship before the war was with composer Henriëtte Bosmans.

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Frieda Belinfante with her partner Henriëtte Bosmans

Her musical career was cut short when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Belinfante’s position as a famous musician gave her some protection, and she chose not to escape to a safe harbor. Instead, she decided to join the Dutch resistance.

She joined Willem Arondeus, who was a proud homosexual himself. Their unit focused on forging documents to smuggle Jews out of the Netherlands. Arondeus didn’t survive World War Two himself, but after his death was  declared a Righteous Gentile by Yad VaShem. 

The Nazis suspicion was aroused in 1943, and the noose began to tighten around the unit member’s necks. Frieda came up with a genius plan to prevent the Nazis from discovering which documents were forged: blowing up the Nazis population registry office in Amsterdam.

 

She planned the mission, but as a woman she wasn’t allowed to join the executive squad. The operation was declared a partial success and the explosion led to the destruction of 800,000 Jewish IDs (15% of those kept there).

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Nazis headquarters after the bombing

Unfortunately, not long after the operation, the unit members were caught, due to an informant. Arondeus’ journal was found, and he was executed in the beginning of July 1943. His last words before being shot were: “Tell the people that homosexuals are not by definition weak!”  

After Arondeus was captured, Belinfante went underground. She went to a barber and demanded he cut her hair. She lived under as a man under a fake identity for the next three months.  In her final days, she said she had been so convincing in this role, that one day her mother didn’t recognize her as they passed each other on the street. She later escaped to Switzerland, found shelter in a Swiss refuge camp, and stayed there until the end of the war.

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Freida Belinfante during the war, dressed as a man

She didn’t rest in the camp, either, and began giving the residents free cello lessons.

When the war was over, she returned to Amsterdam and found out that there was only one other remaining soldier from her unit.

In 1947, she decided to immigrate to the United States, due to her disappointment regarding postwar Netherlands pushing underground fighters to the margins. She settled in California, and was quickly appointed manager of Orange County’s Philharmonic – the first woman in this position.

She blossomed while running the orchestra and gained recognition, but in 1962 a man who coveted her position, informed the board of directors regarding her sexual orientation, and she was fired. In the 60s, it was routine to fire LGBT employees due to their orientation. Homosexuality remained in the DSM (the book that defines mental illness) until 1973. The Stonehill riots, one of the defining moments in LGBT history, occurred only in 1969.

The humiliation of being fired for her sexual humiliation prevented Frieda from returning to a public position, and she spent the rest of her life as a private cello teacher. 

Her tremendous contribution to the Dutch resistance and her musical efforts began to be recognized towards the end of her day, but they are still not recognized enough. 15 years after being fired from the orchestra, Orange County established a day in her honor. As the years passed, both the American Holocaught Museum and the Dutch government recognized her efforts. She died in 1995, at the age of 91. 



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