“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
This week we continue with Frieda Belinfante, a queer woman who shaped her world in her own way.
Belinfante was sent to a refugee camp in Switzerland along with 160 other people, and her time there was in no way positive. Outside of the usual trials of living in a refugee camp, Belinfante was also confronted with hostility from the other refugees.
For the first while, she gave camp free cello lessons within the camp, using an old practice cello. It wasn't long before gossip about her personal life started, and she found out that one of the people she was giving free lessons to was spreading rumors about her. She refused to share a room with Belinfante, saying that she was a lesbian, sending Belinfante elsewhere and effectively securing herself a full room. Belinfante, upon learning about the rumors, stopped giving lessons altogether.
Later in her life, she would remember Switzerland with hostility, recalling their cruelty and their decision to give Tony, a Jewish refugee, over to Nazi officials. Often, she blamed herself.
The moment the war was over, she returned to the Netherlands, but she found her home a different place.
“We found that people who had been riding the fences, as we call it, they were on top, and the people who had given their lives, no one was talking about it and it didn’t mean anything to anybody and we had to fish for ourselves. Things didn’t change. We thought everything would be better, politically better, and nothing, nothing changed.”
This attitude and atmosphere soon began to wear on her. While she wasn't able to talk about her experiences yet, she couldn’t stand to live in the Netherlands. In 1947, she left for the United States. Though initially, she lived in New York, she eventually settled in California in 1949 and joined the music faculty in UCLA. It was there that she truly returned to music, something she had all but abandoned throughout the war. She began conducting again and formed the group the Vine Street Players, an orchestral group, in 1953. It included colleagues from around the state and studio musicians from Hollywood. The group was later asked to form a permanent orchestral ensemble in Orange County.
Under the direction of Belinfante, the Orange County Philharmonic Society was formed. They played free concerts, something Belinfante herself insisted upon, and continued to do so after her departure. Soloists that played with the group included Lili Kraus, Leonard Pennario, Marni Nixon, Dorothy Warenskjold, and Mischa Elman.
But the rumor mill began its turn around Belinfante again, and her contract was not renewed in 1962 because of her sexuality and her gender. She became very frustrated by how the public felt the need to weigh in or punish her for her love for women.
“I don’t make love or haven’t made love publicly. I conduct publicly. I play publicly. That is for the public. That is not for the public to tell what happens in the bedroom.”
Her career quieted quite a bit after. Though she continued teaching music for a while, her public appearances lessened.
"It was just too early for me. I should be born again. I could have done more, that's what saddens me. But I'm not an unhappy person. I look for the next thing to do. There's always something still to do."
It was only in her final years that she began receiving recognition for not only her music but for her wartime efforts. She was the subject of a “But I was a Girl”, a film about the queer experience in the Second World War. The film was funded by the Dutch government. In 1994, she had an eight-hour long interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum discussing her life and her experiences as a queer Jewish woman in the Second World War. Only a year after this interview, at the age of ninety, Frieda died of cancer.
In this interview she described her decisions to aid the resistance during the war, breaking the law, and forging papers as an almost simple one, saying:
“I thought the law was wrong… So, I took the law into my hand and changed it.”
And it is in that quote that we find the incredible lesson that Belinfante threaded throughout her life. This woman broke laws, she played a part in blowing up a building, and she spent much of her time in the Second World War on the run from authorities. She was not a pacifist, and she refused to follow laws that were at their core, immoral, which is something we can all admire.
Though she described it as a simple decision, it is one that many of us struggle with in different forms to this day. Her guiding principle is one that we can hold in our minds as we continue with this struggle.
“I have always done things for people… And I don’t understand people that can only live for themselves. I can’t understand it. Where do you get your happiness? Where do you get your satisfaction? What do you do with your life? What do you do with your strengths? There must be somebody who needs help. There always is.”
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
“The Frieda Belinfante Collection.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/curators-corner/the-frieda-belinfante-collection
Belinfante, Frieda. “Oral history interview with Frieda Belinfante.” Interview by Klaus Müller. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection. 31 May 1994. Transcript: https://collections.ushmm.org/artifact/image/h00/00/h0000032.pdf
BUT I WAS A GIRL, The Story of Frieda Belinfante. Dir. Tony Boumans Perf. Frieda Belinfant. Perf. Kenneth Kuhn. 1999. Documentary.
Rosenthal, Michele. “Frieda Belinfante.” Queer Portraits. 1 Dec 2016. http://queerportraits.com/bio/belinfante.
Pasles, Chris. “O.C. Musical Pioneer Frieda Belinfante Dies at 90 : Obituary: She conducted the Orange County Philharmonic during 1950s. In World War II, she was in the Dutch underground.” Los Angeles Times. 7 Mar 1995.
Mevis, Annette. Francisca de Haan. Nannie Gillissen. “Belinfante, Frieda (1904-1995).” Digital Women’s Lexicon of the Netherlands. 17 Apr 2017.
Seigel, Amanda. Honoring “LGBT Jewish Holocaust Survivors.” New York Public Library. 6 Jun 2017. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2017/06/06/honoring-lgbt-jewish-holocaust-survivors