“I’ve always helped people, whether they’re worth it or not comes out later. They haven’t all been worth my effort, but the effort was worth it.” — Frieda Belinfante
In a world like ours, women like Frieda Belinfante are dearly needed. The first woman in Europe to be artistic director, conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble, and cellist, she was a woman who put her passions to the side when it became evident that the world around her needed something more. Let us look together at Frieda Belinfante, a queer woman who shaped the world and protected those around her.
Frieda was born in 1904 into a very musical family in Amsterdam. Her Jewish father was a concert pianist and music teacher, though her mother never took to music the same as the rest of the family. Belinfante herself began to learn the cello at the age of ten and eventually graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory. Both she and her father found success within the musical world, her father being the first pianist to present the entire cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas during a single season in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. So when Belinfante made her musical debut at the age of seventeen she was quick to carry on that legacy.
Only a few months after her debut, her father died of cancer, leaving her and her family without much financial support. Belinfante soon began studying with a cello teacher in Paris and went on to direct a number of chamber ensembles. And as she gained recognition for her work in 1931 she was briefly married.
Though she was in a long-term relationship with Henriette Bosmans when she met the man who would become her husband, he pursued her despite both her relationship and her assertions that she wasn't the marrying kind. His behaviour soon escalated until he brought a gun to her home threatening to shoot himself if she didn’t marry him. Belinfante spoke of this incident saying,
“He made up his mind that he couldn’t live without me, and he wanted to marry me. And I said, “I’m not the marrying type really.” And he said, “I don’t want to live without you.” And one time he came in with a revolver and he put it on the mantle and I said, “What are you trying to do?” And he said, “I don’t want to live without you.” I said, “I told you I’m not really the marrying kind. I don’t think I can love a man that way. I don’t think so. I just always have great admiration for women.” He said, “Well that’s what it is. I want to be where you are.” So, I said, “Well, I guess we better get married.” And we did.”
It is not wholly surprising that a marriage started in this manner didn’t last long. As soon as they were married, Belinfante tells of him receding from her, though the two separated on good terms. Her husband went on to have a long string of failed marriages but continuing to support Belinfante’s musical career.
As all of this was happening, Europe was being pulled into turmoil. Belinfante was very aware of this, having connections within many different organizations who kept her up-to-date on the happenings of the continent. As the political tension escalated around her Belinfante soon put down her cello and joined the resistance. Finding that she had a talent for forging documents, she was soon making papers for Jewish people who needed to escape the country.
She joined the CKC resistance group which included other queer members including Willem Arondeus. In her interview with the Holocaust Museum, she claims that she was the one who pointed out that if they were going to forge documents, they had to also destroy the originals so no one caught on. This led to the destruction of the Amsterdam public registry on March 27, 1943.
As a woman, Belinfante herself was not allowed to go on that mission, so she only knew that her fellow group members were captured when her right-hand man didn’t show up to the meeting spot. She immediately abandoned her home and disguised herself as a man. It was only later that she learned the others of the group had been executed.
She stayed that way for a while, keeping below the radar, and dressing up as a man to keep from being caught. In fact, Belinfante got so good at it that she passed her own mother several times on the street and was not found out.
It is here that we take a little aside to say, while Belinfante did dress as a man for some time, it is unlikely that she identified as one. The disguise was out of necessity and as soon as the need was no longer there we don’t see her going back to it. While there is a possibility, all of the usual markers point to it being a need driven decision and not a part of her identity.
After three months of donning her disguise, Belinfante realized that she couldn’t stay in Amsterdam. Her presence put all of those around her in danger. The resistance helped her cross the borders of Belgium and France, and there she met Tony.
Though Belinfante herself was Jewish, she remembers Tony’s hesitation to travel with her. Tony's appearance was what people were looking for when they hunted Jewish people, and he worried this would put Belinfante at risk. Belinfante dismissed those worries though, and the two of them began the long hike to Switzerland.
The travel itself was not without its dangers. At one point the two were forced to cross freezing water, and where Belinfante took off all of her clothes and kept a small towel above the water, Tony refused to take off his shorts. Belinfante remembered his refusal saying,
“He said he kept his shorts on and I looked at him and I said, “I don’t keep anything on.” He said, “Well, it’s just my old-fashioned nature.” And I said, “Well, you’re wrong because when I am across I brought a towel and I can dry myself off, but I have nothing wet to put on. You’ll have to put those shorts back on and they will be wet.” Well, he thought it was nice that he could keep his shorts on and he walked in front of me and we got across.”
And before they entered the water, Belinfante told Tony to go in front of her saying, “What we had to do is we had to take our clothes off completely and bundle them up and hold them on our heads. I said to Tony, now Tony, you’re much taller than I am, so if the water comes to here with you, it comes to here with me. But it comes to here with you, I’m under, so go slowly so that I can watch it because I don’t swim and so I would be under the water and that would be the end of me. I thought it was kind of fun and he kind of smiled and said he’d take it easy.”
But even with these precautions, the journey was by no means safe.
“It was so cold. It was ice cold. And of course, when it’s ice cold and wet, you don’t get yourself dry whether you have a towel or not. It’s just impossible. So, we were there for the longest time. I think we must have been at least 15 minutes to 20 minutes to get something on even though I had a little towel, but we did get it on, and we got our shirts back on and we were on the other side.
We were actually in Switzerland when we crossed the river because that was the natural border. But we didn’t have much profit from that, because, on the Swiss side, there was an absolutely steep mountain, so we couldn’t get into Switzerland and hide. The forest was completely filled with snow and trees and no way of climbing. So, we had to walk along the river in full sight of anybody. I mean, if there would have been border guards from the Swiss side looking for us, they would have seen us…
It was absolute silence. It was gorgeous. It is a trip I will never forget. It was the most wonderful quiet trip of ten or twelve hours that we walked because we arrived finally to the bridge around dark, 8:00, 9:00, and then we had to walk up the road. See, the road would go down to the bridge and that would be the river, the border, but the bridge was gone. So we walked there. So you could only walk in the water or you walk up the road but there was no road after. And so we had to walk up the road and we must have looked like lost tramps or something. Pretty soon we came by houses so we knew that people were seeing us. And finally, we came to a little cafe and I stopped there and I said let’s try to make a phone call.”
It was there that they were spotted as refugees. The Swiss authorities captured Belinfante in the middle of a phone call to the Dutch consulate, and took her and Tony to prison, forcing them to walk as the police skied in front of them.
The Swiss police then questioned both Belinfante and Tony. What Belinfante didn’t know was that Switzerland had decided that they would no longer take single men as refugees, so when they asked her if Tony was her husband, she told the truth. She would regret for the rest of her life.
Tony was sent back by the Swiss authorities and immediately executed.