Released: September 15, 2022
When Frieda Belinfante’s home country of the Netherlands is invaded by the Nazis in 1940, she leaves her flourishing music career to join the resistance movement. In defiance of the Nazi regime, Frieda, a lesbian, will risk her life to protect Jews, musicians, and other members of her community. Featuring Museum historian Dr. Jake Newsome.
Erin Harper: It’s 1938. In a concert hall in the Netherlands, Frieda Belinfante stands on stage. At the head of her orchestra, she raises her baton, and on her cue, the musicians begin a symphony. At this moment, Frieda defies the norm, and becomes one of Europe’s first female conductors of a professional orchestra. But her time in Dutch cultural life will soon come to an abrupt end.
Within a year, the Nazis will ignite WWII, and then, invade Frieda’s home country of the Netherlands. While Frieda herself will not be directly targeted by the Nazis— many of her friends will come under attack. So, Frieda will join the resistance— and risk her life to protect thousands of other people. Because, from Frieda’s perspective: it has to be done.
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.
Frieda started playing the cello as a child. As a teenager, she gave concerts, and grew close with other musicians in Amsterdam. A few years later, she met a pianist and composer who won her heart— Henrietta. Henrietta would become Frieda’s girlfriend. Frieda said, “That was ... my first real love.”
Dr. Jake Newsome: She admitted, “I'm a romantic and always have been.”
Erin Harper: That’s Dr. Jake Newsome, an expert on the history of LGBTQ+ people during and after the Holocaust. He also coordinates programs for colleges and universities at the Museum.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Frieda lived life on her own terms. And she never hid the fact that she loved women. She once stated, “I just lived my life and didn't explain anything to anyone. People found out when they found out.”
Erin Harper: Frieda and Henrietta lived together for seven years. Eventually, Frieda moved on and had other relationships. All the while, her drive towards music remained. She didn’t just want to be in an orchestra. She wanted to be at the helm— conducting her own orchestra through symphonies. Dr. Jake Newsome: Being the conductor of an orchestra was considered to be a “man's role.” Frieda stated, “If I'm told that something can't be done, my response is always, well, we'll see about that.” She really challenged the norms and expectations. And she was very well aware of that.
Erin Harper: With little training, Frieda started conducting choirs. Then in 1938, at age 34, Frieda gave her first concert as a professional orchestra conductor. Her orchestra was well-received in the press, and over the next year, became a resounding success.
But now, it’s May 10th, 1940— Frieda’s 36th birthday. And today, as part of their plan to dominate Europe, the Nazis invade Frieda’s home country of the Netherlands. Let’s back up a minute.
Since the Nazis came to power — seven years prior in 1933— Frieda and her friends had looked across the border to Germany, and watched the Nazis attempt to create their so-called “pure German race.” They demonized, persecuted, and excluded Jews. And now with WWII underway, each time the Nazis invade another country, like the Netherlands, they bring their anti-Jewish ideology, their anti-Jewish laws, and their fury.
But the Nazis are not only going after Jews. They’re also targeting some members of, what we today call, the LGBTQ+ community. Dr. Jake Newsome: So when the Nazis came to power, they inherited a series of laws in the German criminal code that regulated so-called “crimes against morality.” Paragraph 175 was one of those statutes. So this was the law that was used to criminalize same-sex relations between men. The Nazis made it clear that sexual and gender nonconformity really would have no place in the new Germany that they were trying to establish. And I think it's really important to understand that Nazi leaders believed that the alleged “deviance” of same-sex desire and same-sex identities was a “vice”— it was a “choice” that anyone could be tempted into, which is also why they thought that it was so dangerous.
Erin Harper: By this time in 1940, under the Paragraph 175 law, the Nazis have arrested tens of thousands of German men for having — or suspected of having — sexual relations with other men. But it’s important to note that, while the Nazis don’t approve of any sexual and gender nonconformity, they don’t specifically target all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Within the LGBTQ+ community, it was gay men that the Nazis viewed as the most dangerous because men in Nazi Germany had access to positions of leadership. So other folks in the LGBTQ+ community— like lesbians— they weren't singled out with a specific law, but that doesn't mean that they weren't persecuted. Due to a number of different policies in combination with the social stigmatization and taboos, it really was impossible for folks like lesbians to openly-express their identities without, in turn, putting themselves in danger. And so you really have to understand that back in that time, the decision to live openly was itself an act of resistance and bravery.
Erin Harper: And so, as a lesbian, Frieda skirts the edge of the Nazis’ sphere of persecution. But that’s not all. Nazis are not only going after certain people. See, the regime has been digging its claws deep into all aspects of culture and society. In their occupied territories, the Nazis crack down on art, literature, and music.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Under Nazi rule, art, in all of its forms that was considered un-German, was banned and in many cases was actively destroyed. Artists had to register with the newly-established Nazi Chamber of Culture in order to keep working. And of course Jews were excluded from registering with this chamber.
Erin Harper: To Frieda, this is alarming, because she had two Jewish grandparents. But, in the eyes of the Nazis, this did not make her classified as a Jew— and therefore— not a target. So, once again, she narrowly escapes Nazi persecution. But because many musicians in Frieda’s orchestra are Jewish, she suspects it’s only a matter of time until the Nazis shut them down. So, shortly after the invasion, Frieda disbands her orchestra. She says to the musicians, “Boys, we don’t have an orchestra anymore. We don’t exist...”.
Then, Frieda vanishes from musical life. Because now, she knows she must suss out who she can trust— who are her true friends, and who might sell her out. Around this time, Frieda meets a man who would become a dear friend — Willem Arondeus.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Willem Arondeus grew up in a non-Jewish family in Amsterdam. He himself was an artist who had a fair amount of success. He was gainfully employed as an illustrator, but by the 1930s, he had actually quit working as an artist, and instead took up writing. He was 46-years-old when the Nazis invaded, and he began to use his skills as an author to craft anti-Nazi resistance literature. Willem was also openly-gay.
Erin Harper: Bonded by their experiences, Frieda and Willem become very close.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Both Frieda and Willem are artists and therefore impacted by the Nazis’ crack down on the arts. Both Frieda and Willem are openly gay, and therefore had persevered against discrimination in the mainstream for their whole lives. Ultimately, they were fiercely protective of each other.
Erin Harper: So in November of 1941, Frieda and Willem take up their first act of resistance together as friends. They, along with other resisters, set up a fund to financially support musicians, actors, architects, painters, and writers — who can’t work, or refuse to work under Nazi restrictions. This group of resisters would grow to more than a dozen members.
And over the next several months, Frieda watches as the Nazis terrorize Dutch Jews. By now in 1941, their attack is unrelenting. Jews are being kicked out of every type of profession. Jews are rounded up and sectioned off in parts of Amsterdam. In the streets, if the Gestapo secret police suspect someone is Jewish, they can stop them, and ask for identification. See, even before the Nazi invasion, the Dutch government had required all citizens to carry identification. Now, the Nazis also require Dutch Jews to register as Jewish. And the Jews’ ID cards are stamped with the letter “J,” so they can easily be identified.
So, while Frieda herself is not a direct target, once again, she chooses to resist the Nazi regime. She starts asking her non-Jewish friends to— “lose” their IDs, and slip them her way. She uses this ID to create a new identity for a Dutch Jew — without the Nazis’ “J” stamp.
The IDs look kind of like passports— a small card with a headshot, number, name, birthdate, the ID holder’s fingerprint, and a couple of government stamps. So with a steady hand, Frieda takes the non-Jewish ID, and peels back the top layer of glossy film. She pulls out the photo, and swaps it with the Jewish person’s. She changes the name, adds a fake number, then seals it back up. Frieda makes hundreds of new identities to protect Jews.
Dr. Jake Newsome: These false IDs were also dangerous though— they were dangerous to possess one, but also dangerous to make and distribute them, since it was a really direct act of resistance against the Nazi state.
Erin Harper: With this resistance, Frieda put herself in danger. But, she said, “I didn't do something dangerous without purpose, but I did do something that needed to be done.” Then one day, Frieda is in her apartment, waiting for her neighbors—a Jewish couple— to come pick up their false IDs. But they don’t show. So Frieda walks across the street to their home and rings the doorbell. The door opens— but it’s not her neighbors. It’s two German Gestapo secret police officers who are in the middle of searching the home. Frieda turns to rush out, but the officers are suspicious — and they lock her in a room. Then, they escort her back to her apartment. Suddenly, she can’t remember if she left false IDs lying out in the open.
When they enter her apartment, Frieda sees some IDs sticking out from behind sheet music on the piano. She immediately tries to distract the officers, and she manages to conceal the IDs. Then the officers see that Frieda has a suspicious amount of food in her apartment. They suggest that she’s hoarding food rations, perhaps, to feed Jews in hiding. So they arrest her, and interrogate her for hours. Again, Frieda manages to skirt their questions. Then, she employs a new tactic. She starts telling them a bunch of insignificant stories. They get annoyed, and finally let her go.
But Frieda doesn’t waiver— she carries on with her resistance. Several months go by. And in the summer of 1942, the Nazis are checking IDs in the streets, looking for the “J” stamp to determine who is Jewish. The Nazis begin deporting Dutch Jews to killing centers and concentration camps in German-occupied areas to the East. Many more Jewish friends and acquaintances are requesting false IDs. So Frieda involves Willem, and other members of the resistance group. They step-up the operation and begin to mass-produce and distribute false IDs. They even work with a printer, and make IDs from scratch. Frieda works side-by-side with Willem. Jews come to Frieda’s apartment, and while she takes their fingerprint, Willem completes another step in the process. Together the group makes and distributes more than 70,000 false IDs to Jews.
Dr. Jake Newsome: It's hard for us today to imagine the danger that Frieda, Willem and others were putting themselves in by joining the resistance. Right, so there was the physical danger, but also the fear of the unknown as the situation around them was constantly changing and becoming increasingly more volatile.
Erin Harper: But then, Frieda, Willem and the group realize they have a serious problem. At the Amsterdam Civil Registry building, duplicates of every authentic ID are on file, which puts every false ID in jeopardy. At any moment, if the Nazis discover that there are false IDs in circulation, they would launch another crackdown, and begin verifying IDs.
So, the group meets in secret. And Frieda says, "We have to destroy those duplicates.” So it begins. Frieda, Willem, and the group being their most bold act of defiance yet. They will bomb the Amsterdam Civil Registry building— sending the duplicate IDs up in flames and solidifying their protection of Dutch Jews.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Frieda and all of the members of the resistance were well-aware that they would be severely punished if they were caught. Yet knowing all of this, they decided to proceed with their act of resistance. So it began as a group of strangers, who then ultimately turned into a community of co-conspirators.
Erin Harper: Their planning is meticulous. More than a dozen resisters take part. First they meet monthly, then weekly. But the meetings draw too much attention. So they only talk, in passing, at various locations around Amsterdam. Every member of the group has a role: Frieda is a planner. One young Jewish man is a messenger— who relays information among members. Another is an architect, who studies the layout of the building. He hangs around the Civil Registry —watching, asking questions. He gets someone to mention exactly where the IDs are stored. Another resister gets ahold of explosives to make bombs.
The group also studies building security. They spy, and discover that outside, two police officers guard the building at all times. Another officer circles the block to make sure those guards are on watch. So— with all this security— what’s the best way to get inside? To disguise themselves as police, knock out the real guards, and walk right in.
For this, they need convincing police uniforms. Willem asks his friend — a tailor, who was also a gay man — to make fake uniforms for the resisters. One is fitted for Willem. He will lead the operation. And Frieda said, being the leader of the bombing operation meant a lot to Willem. She said Willem worried people thought gay men were not heroic.
Dr. Jake Newsome: I think Willem probably felt empowered by the idea that his actions, as part of this plan, symbolized more than just his own personal life. There were widespread stereotypes at the time that depicted gay men as weak, as timid. So, Willem taking this leadership role in this incredibly daring and courageous resistance mission just completely contradicted those stereotypes. So this really was Willem’s chance to prove those stereotypes wrong.
Erin Harper: As the bombing draws closer, Frieda and Willem have a conversation. Something had to be said about the consequences they could face. Willem turns to her and asks, “‘Do you think that we will see the end of this war?” Frieda replies, “No, I don't think so.” Willem says “I don’t think so either.” Frieda says, “I'd rather give my life for something than give it for nothing.”
Dr. Jake Newsome: Frieda and Willem have this moment where they stop to think about their own mortality, and whether or not they would survive. A lot of times, our versions of historical heroes seem to be colored by unwavering bravery— that heroes are always sure of their success. But Frieda and Willem not only thought about the fact that they would likely lose their lives, but they had a deep enough connection with each other to verbalize it. And I really think that this shows how much trust they had in each other to be vulnerable in this moment of just extreme danger and terror.
Erin Harper: As the group continues to plan, something becomes clear to Frieda. Something that probably wrenches her gut. The men in the group make it known that she and the other women in the resistance will not be participating in the physical bombing. Because it was seen as a so-called “man’s job.” Frieda said, “None of the women were asked to do anything [the] night ... the attack [would] take place.” But, she said, “I would have liked to be part of it.”
Dr. Jake Newsome: So Frieda was used to blazing trails as a woman. She had never shied away from dangerous situations and in fact, she had once said that she liked to “look danger in the eye.” I think the people that had been her comrades in the resistance movement looked at her and saw her being a woman as a limitation. So, then there's also the question of appearance. A central part of the plan was for the resistance members to dress as police. So the team thought that it was impossible for Frieda to pass as a man and as a police officer in particular. Erin Harper: And so, the bombing begins without her. It’s Saturday night. March 27, 1943. Willem, and several other men suit up in their disguise. In the dark, they approach the guards outside the Amsterdam Civil Registry. They tell the guards — they’re here to search the building for bombs. The guards are likely skeptical— but then again—just a few months ago there was another attack on a government building not far away. And they think, perhaps this is a reasonable precaution. So the guards let all the disguised resisters inside.
Then— two of the resisters who are medical students— sedate the guards and haul their bodies across the street to the zoo. A couple resisters take the place of the guards, so no one will suspect. Willem and the others make their way inside, to the room with the IDs. They unload their bombs, and hurry back out. Meanwhile, Frieda tries to watch from a rooftop nearby. In the dark, from a distance, she can’t see what’s going on. So she waits to hear a sound, trying to imagine how it’s going down— what her Williem is doing. Will they be caught? Will they be hurt? Will they succeed? Then finally, the bombs are detonated. The Amsterdam Civil Registry goes up in flames. They had done it. 800,000 copies of Dutch IDs are burning to ash. No one is killed in the bombing. And every resister gets away that night.
But the next morning, with the building in a smoldering pile of rubble, the Nazis are furious. The Gestapo offers a monetary reward for any information on who’s responsible. The local police begin hunting the resisters. Frieda and others go into hiding, and manage to go unnoticed for a few days. But the resistance group had grown too large. Too many people knew. They started whispering. And finally, someone talked. Just days after the bombing, someone tells the authorities that Willem is behind it. Willem is arrested, and interrogated. He takes full responsibility— and says nothing about the others.
But while Willem is detained, the Gestapo gets ahold of his notebook, and finds the names of several others involved. Fourteen other members of the resistance are arrested. Somehow — Frieda goes unnoticed. The Nazis put Willem and the others on trial. Then, for the bombing of the Amsterdam Civil Registry, and for his acts of resistance against the Nazi regime, Willem is sentenced to death. In the summer of 1943, Willem is executed by firing squad, along with 11 other resisters. But before he is killed, Willem makes a request.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Right before his execution, Willem has one final wish. He asked his lawyer to let the world know that gay people are not cowards.
Erin Harper: While Frieda remains in hiding, she learns of Willem’s execution. Although we don't know how Frieda felt— she was likely devastated by the news. She later reflected of Willem, she said, quote, “He would prove that you didn't have to be a heterosexual person to be heroic.”
By now, Frieda’s friends tell her the Gestapo is asking of her whereabouts. So, she decides she needs a better way to hide. This time, in plain sight.
Dr. Jake Newsome: So she knows that the authorities are looking for someone named Frieda Belinfante. So she decides to simply not be Frieda Bellafante for a while.
Erin Harper: She finds a men’s three-piece suit. She makes herself a false ID with the name “Hans Kroon.” In her disguise— the suit, hat, and glasses— she walks into a barber shop. She hangs her hat on a hook. The barber asks, "What do you want sir, shave or haircut?" She responds, “Just a haircut.” The barber doesn’t bat an eye. For the next several months, Frieda disguises herself as a man.
Dr. Jake Newsome: And apparently her disguise was quite good. She mentions that she passed her mother in the street more than once, and even her own mother didn't recognize her. But remember, her comrades in the bombing mission told her that she couldn't participate, partly because she couldn't pull-off the disguise. And yet here she was doing just that.
Erin Harper: Frieda continues to stay with friends in the resistance. But she feels she’s jeopardizing them. At any moment, she could be caught, and they would all be killed. So Frieda decides it’s time for her to escape. She hears about a route out of the Netherlands. Just as freezing temperatures and winter storms roll into the region, Frieda sets out on foot.
She treks south across the border into Belgium through the woods— careful not to be caught by the Germans. She makes it to France, traveling with other escapees. And many people help her along the way— farmers, and members of the French resistance. They dry off her clothes, and give her food, and warm shelter.
By February of 1944, she continues south — walking through snow and deep, freezing water. After hundreds of miles escaping on foot, Frieda finally makes it to the relative safety of Switzerland— which has declared itself neutral in the war. She finds shelter at an inn. Swiss border police take Frieda to jail, while they verify her Dutch citizenship. Then, she’s sent to a Swiss camp to live with other Dutch, Belgian and French refugees. In the camp in Switzerland, Frieda is given an attic room to herself. As she spends months alone, recovering from her journey— she thinks of her resistance. Her Willem. And for the moment, it's quiet.
Dr. Jake Newsome: Frieda Belinfante's story simultaneously humbles and inspires me. This is a woman who didn't let society's expectations define or limit her. And you know, what makes Frieda so remarkable to me is that she was just an ordinary person. She had no training in activism or resistance. Frieda understood that during a time when the Nazi regime and unfortunately much of the populace sought to sow divisions and pit one group against the other, she knew how important compassion was.
Erin Harper: After the war, while the stories of Dutch resistance were told, Frieda and Willem’s names were often left out. Only in the past few decades have their stories been told.
Dr. Jake Newsome: It is incredible meaningful to have LGBTQ+ representation in the history of the Holocaust because for so long, really for too long, LGBTQ+ folks were written out of these histories — there was just a glaring absence where their stories should be. And when they were mentioned at all, they were usually described as “deviants” or “criminals” or as “immoral” people. But here we have examples of people, like Frieda and Willem, who were incredibly brave and complex, and thus beautifully human.
You know, I wonder how many other stories like Frieda and Willem’s are out there that have been silenced because their identity or their lives were considered by society to be “abnormal.”
Erin Harper: Back in the Swiss refugee camp, Frieda rekindled her passion for music. She gave lessons to girls and let them practice on her cello. But soon after, Frieda learned that the girls were gossiping about her because she was a lesbian. Frieda didn’t stand for it. She said to the girls, “... I know what you did. … I don't give free lessons to people like that, so it's finished. You're not going to practice on my cello.” Shortly after, Frieda said she grew tired of being in the refugee camp.
The Nazis continued their war across Europe, and their mass killing of European Jews until Allied soldiers liberated Europe in the Spring of 1945. By that time, the Nazis had murdered more than six million Jews— including 75 percent of all Jews who were living in the Netherlands.
In Germany, Nazi officials made 100,000 arrests under the Paragraph 175 law. Of those arrests— about half resulted in convictions. Thousands of the men were imprisoned in concentration camps. It’s unknown how many other members of the LGBTQ+ community were arrested or persecuted under the Nazi regime—because it was not documented. We will also never know the number of those who hid their LGBTQ+ identities for fear of reprisal. Many of their stories remain untold. Immediately following the war, the law that targeted gay men was revoked in the Netherlands. However, in Germany after the fall of the Nazi regime — the Paragraph 175 law stayed on the books. Many of the men remained in prison for years. Same-sex relations were decriminalized in the late 1960s, and the law was finally repealed in 1994.
Frieda Belinfante remained in Switzerland until the war ended. She later emigrated to the US, and settled in California. Her career in music continued to flourish— and she became the founding artistic director and conductor of the Orange County Philharmonic.
But after several years of success, the organization did not renew Frieda’s contract. Frieda said she believed it was because of her sexual orientation— that homophobia had emerged in her life once again. Frieda later moved to New Mexico and taught music. She passed away in 1995 at the age of 90.
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. Joining me was Dr. Jake Newsome, an expert on the history of LGBTQ+ people during and after the Holocaust. He also coordinates programs for colleges and universities at the Museum.
Our story is informed by the research of our colleague Klaus Mueller, who conducted Frieda Belinfante’s Oral History, which can be found online in the museum’s collection. We also drew from the work of Toni Boumans. We offer a special thank you to Jaap van Opstal for assistance with Dutch translation.
Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from the Crown Family Philanthropies and from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation. Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to email@example.com, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. If you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app. Thanks for listening.
Boumans, Toni. Een Schitterend Vergeten Leven De Eeuw Van Frieda Belinfante, 2015, Uitgeverij Balans, Amsterdam Special thanks to museum volunteer Jaap van Opstal for Dutch translation help.
Swiss Federal Archives, Belinfante, Frieda, 05.10.1904 (File), E4264 # 1985/196 # 30125