Frieda Belinfante: Cellist, Conductor, Outwitter of Nazis

In light of recent events in America, here’s an unplanned entry on Nazi-fighting cellist Frieda Belinfante.

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Heroine.

I’ve never mentioned her on the blog before; her story is so extraordinary that I wanted to save it for a big project. I still want to come back to it someday. But I thought her story – and more specifically, her own words – could bring some much-needed comfort, perspective, and inspiration in this particular moment.

Frieda Belinfante was a cellist and conductor who was born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1904. The Concertgebouw hired her to found the Het Klein Orkest in 1937, which, in the words of Wikipedia, “made her the first woman in Europe to be artistic director and conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble.” Frieda was a lesbian, and her father Jewish (although she insisted adamantly that neither her heritage nor her sexuality defined her). After barely escaping the Nazis, she emigrated to the United States in 1947 and founded the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra. She died in the spring of 1995 in New Mexico.

The following excerpts are transcriptions from an oral history testimony she gave to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in May of 1994. You can read all 86 pages of it here, and I recommend that when you have time, you do.

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Frieda Belinfante began playing cello when she was nine or ten. Her father was a renowned pianist, but he “didn’t know anything about strings.” Her first teacher “did nothing much” and her second teacher, whose wife had committed suicide, wanted to marry Frieda so she could cook for him. (Needless to say, she didn’t accept that offer.) Eventually she studied with Gérard Hekking, principal cello at the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1903 to 1914, who gave her the technical grounding that she needed.

When she was sixteen, Frieda met composer Henriëtte Bosmans. In the testimony Frieda describes her as “my best friend, girl friend… I was a high admirer of this wonderful, beautiful looking girl, composer.” They fell in love and lived together intermittently for seven years, and Henriëtte even wrote her second cello concerto for Frieda.

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Frieda Belinfante and Henriëtte Bosmans

Eventually Frieda and Henriëtte met a flutist. The transcript refers to him as John Falcon, but other sources indicate his name is spelled Jo Feldcamp or Veldkamp. Frieda recalls:

He was a wonderful flute player, the best I ever heard in my life… He didn’t care about his clothes. He didn’t care how late he went to bed. He would practice until 2:00 in the morning. He was a real Bohemian. But 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.

Not surprisingly, the marriage was unhappy. Frieda explained why the relationship went bad:

To make a long story short, because there’s not much to tell, because he never spoke about anything that went on inside of him. If I said something about his nature, would you like this or you’re very fond of so and so, he would say no. In other words, he could not be open. He could not be touched. His inner life was his. And so we became quieter and quieter…

Q: You said that you understand that he didn’t feel comfortable with you?

A: Yes, because I’m just the opposite of what he is. I am an open person, and I’m a very romantic person and I’m telling people exactly how I am and what I am not. I said it is not a good idea to get married, and it wasn’t. But he said, no matter what I do, no matter what I feel, no matter what I say, he would say I just don’t want to live without you. Now, what do you do when a person threatens you with a revolver.

The two were married in 1931 and divorced in 1936. It was an amiable separation, but:

I asked him, “Do you want to make music together, regardless. I mean, if I continue to be your friend?” He said, “No.” He would rather have us not see each other…

Q: Did your friendship with Henrietta diminish or -?

A: She really pulled away gradually because she considered me kind of her private possession… I had other friendships that filled my life. I’m very romantic, and I go overboard with what I do for people. It’s no half measure as far as I’m concerned. So, I’ve had other relationships, but not right away.

One of my favorite cello and piano pieces of all time, Bosmans’s cello sonata, 1919. She wrote this around the time she met Frieda.

From there the interviewer moved on to asking about European politics of the mid-1930s:

Q: Was there also anti-Semitism right after 1933 in Holland?

A: Yes, we knew that.

Q: Also in the Netherlands?

A: There was some and there was a discussion very often about people that said, “It’s different in Holland. They are not against the Jews. They are just Russian Socialists. They are Socialists. They are not against the Jews.” That’s what they say now, but wait until they feel that they are on top. That isn’t openly admitted. There were members that argue about it. In fact, we saw parades, you know, demonstrations… I said how naive can you be. You can’t believe that. Everybody that says it is not going to be against Jews is just to get the movement going. So, I never believed that you could tell everybody honestly it’s different. It’s not different. It’s just little by little.

In 1939 Frieda went to Switzerland to study conducting with Dr. Hermann Scherchen. She was awarded first prize over her twelve (male) classmates. But in 1940:

I completely disappeared from the musical life and immediately started to prepare myself to do other things that needed doing. In other words, to ask people how they were standing politically.

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Instead of pursuing her promising career as a conductor, Frieda became involved with a resistance group in Amsterdam whose aim was to support architects, musicians, painters, writers, and other artistic types whose careers were being adversely affected by Nazism.

Then, in 1943, she started forging identity documents for people.

I was very good at falsifying things. Steady hand to take the glossy part, because the picture had two layers. It’s a thick thing, a picture, a passport picture. And the other side, this is the picture, the other side was a seal under which was the fingerprint, the fingerprint on the seal. So, you had to keep the fingerprint because we didn’t have the fingerprint of the one who gave his i.d. to you, so I had to take the glossy part off without injuring the back part, the seal, which I was good at. And then, the picture had no stamps on it, stamps, because there were two ink stamps, one in this corner and one on that corner and I had to falsify that with two different colors of ink sometimes. So, you had to have a steady hand for that. That was my main occupation.

Frieda urged others to lie to authorities so she could get the necessary raw materials to work with:

It was also hard to get people to give you their identity card and go to the office and ask and say I lost it or it was stolen. I gave them all kinds of advice. Just say it was stolen. I was in the swimming pool. I can’t go swimming with an i.d. because I have to hang it up in the dressing room, and it’s gone.

Eventually she began teaming up with a gay man (the transcript doesn’t reveal his name), and together they falsified documents.

One time we had a conversation about the danger that was over our head and he said, “Do you think that we will see the end of this war?” And I said, “I don’t think so.” And he said, “I don’t think so either.” He said, “Do you mind?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “I don’t either.” So, I knew exactly that I had a partner who had the same point of view that I had.

She added:

When I get a bump on my head I die too, and I have not done anything with my life. I want a high price for mine.

She was asked if they ever spoke of their experiences as a gay man and a gay woman:

No, I never even mentioned it. Because it doesn’t make any difference to me. I have always met every human being like an equal. I think a human being is a human being, however he is born is how he is born and has to live with it. I have never felt any discrimination, personally, I haven’t…

I never told anybody anything. I just lived my life and I never explained anything. I didn’t belong to any kind of group. It’s not like it is here…

I’ve had relationships with women that were always coming to me, almost without exception. I have never approached women all the time. It just so happened that I decide to help them or do something for them or something, or take them out of a situation that was detrimental to them or something. I protect them. I have always done things for people. I’m not happy when I can’t do that. I feel very lonesome if there’s nobody around that I can help and love and protect. 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. And I’ve never failed. I’ve never been alone. I’ve always helped people, whether they were worth it or not comes out later. They haven’t all been worth my effort, but the effort was worth it. That’s the way I look at life. But I have had wonderful experiences, I have had awful experiences, but it all balances out. I mean, I have had most wonderful, very romantic – you make your own life. Nothing makes it for you. You make your own life. You live your own life and that’s making it. I mean what you hear me tell you is my life. That’s what I did with it. And I know also what I didn’t do with it, because there are a lot of things that I should have done, maybe, could have done, maybe, but it is only very short, and it gets shorter when you look at it. The longer you look at it, the smaller it becomes. The more you think I wish I had another 90 years, because there’s so much –

At that point, the fifth tape of the interview stops.

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When the sixth begins, Frieda speaks of the Nazi occupation, and how she got involved with the plot to destroy the population records in Amsterdam’s Public Records Office. False identity cards for the persecuted would work…but only as long as the original records were corrupted in some way. If enough of the originals contained within the records office were destroyed, it would become very difficult for the Nazis to know what was forged and what was not. Frieda claimed that she herself came up with the idea of the attack (although other sources credit artist Willem Arondeus, who is famous for saying before his execution, “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards”).

I brought in Rudy Lumgar [the transcript may have the name mistaken] who was one of the people who was executed. He worked as my right hand man during those dangerous years… And Rudy became my in-between man. Me, Rudy, headquarters, because they didn’t want women in the attack on City Hall. We never got an active part. I only got the part in the preparation. They met once a week, first once a month, but that was not enough. It became once a week, and later, we didn’t meet, because it was too dangerous. But, I would get news through Rudy. And Rudy didn’t know where I lived, and I didn’t know where Rudy lived. But we had always from week to week, a point on the street somewhere, where we would meet each other. If one of the two would not show up at that hour at that point, then we knew, disappear.

Her interviewer asked why women weren’t allowed to be part of the attack:

I think because the main attackers were policemen. And to be disguised as a policeman for a man is easier than for a woman, less chance. Also, because it was physically a pretty hard job. So, I think they had a very good reason. However, women could have brought in some of the explosions, some of the things that were not too heavy to carry… Not every man is better than every woman. But they think so, some of them… I would have liked to be part of it, but – …

Q: Was the attack successful?

A: Very successful.

After the attack, Frieda went into hiding. To outwit the Gestapo, she lived and dressed as a man, as many of her colleagues were jailed and ultimately executed. She was so successfully disguised that she once passed her own mother in the street without blowing her cover.

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Frieda in her disguise

But nonetheless, as every week went by, her situation became more and more untenable: “I knew that I wouldn’t be of any help to anybody and maybe be the cause of somebody being killed along with me. So, I decided I had to leave.”

She was supposed to escape to England via northern France, but the Germans intercepted the message. So she ended up stuck in Paris. Finally she heard from a friend that she could escape to Switzerland by meeting up with a sympathetic young farming couple and then wading across a river. She went with a traveling companion named Tony.

It was February. We had to walk five miles out of the border. You had to walk five miles and then you had to walk all the way north until you get to the place where the bridge was from Switzerland. And the river, the bridge and then you’re in France, well, because the bridge was blown up. So, it was only a blown up bridge, and there was a place, a farmers family lived out in nowhere. So, I went with [my traveling companion] Tony there and we got off the train and we started to walk and we found the farm. And there was snow this high. And there was nobody out. It was a blizzard. And we had to really walk. All I remember I had with me was my music satchel with one towel because I know I had to wade through the river and so I took a towel with me. That was all, and what we had on.

When they arrived at the young couple’s farm, the husband warned Frieda that they wouldn’t make it. Frieda said, “I’ll take a chance” and put her shoes in the oven to warm them up.

When they arrived at the river,

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 if 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.

And then Frieda brought up their clothes:

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.

The journey was perilous:

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.

Frieda tried calling the Dutch consulate, but couldn’t get through to anyone who could help her. Soon the border police arrived at the cafe. The officer was unsympathetic to the plight of refugees. He took the phone out of her hand and said she had no right to telephone anyone. (“He was very unfriendly,” Frieda observed.) His wife and daughter gave her wine, then she was sent to jail. The border police had skis, but of course Frieda didn’t, so she and her traveling companion Tony had to trudge behind. Doctors later told her she was lucky she didn’t have any permanent injuries from her trek.

Ultimately Freida’s Dutch references checked out. The authorities asked if Tony was engaged or married to her. Frieda unthinkingly told the truth, that they were just friends. She didn’t realize that the Swiss didn’t keep single male refugees anymore, only female ones. If she had lied, he would have lived. So Tony was sent back into the snow, returned to the French police, and killed.

But Frieda escaped. It was February 1944.

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When she returned to Amsterdam after the war, she found that her apartment had been sealed shut by the Gestapo.

We found that the people that had been riding the fences, as we call it, they were on top, and the people who had given their lives, nobody 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.

After the cinematic thrill of the Resistance, she found her safe postwar life dull:

But the whole atmosphere to me was dull, very dull and unexciting, and people were not talking about the past. They were not talking about what happened, and of course, I didn’t feel like talking about it myself. I was glad that there was peace. But nobody was mentioning those five years that I remember. They were just doing their own thing and trying to make money and make a living, but in a very dull kind of atmosphere.

Frieda left for the United States in 1947, in search of something – anything – new. “I just didn’t feel any interest coming in or going out to try step by step to build up something in Holland because I had lost the people that – the two cellists, and the violinist were killed in concentration camps, and you know, there was only one man left of the whole Jewish group that I had.”

Once she arrived in America, she started rooming with a former schoolmate in New York. This schoolmate bought a 1947 Crosley automobile, and together they took a cross-country road trip. “It was a complete fresh beginning for me. The people didn’t have any idea of what Europe went through and what Holland went through. They were very open minded and very hospitable.” Ultimately she settled in California, where she founded and conducted the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, the paragraphs above are just a tiny, tiny glimpse into the life of Frieda Belinfante. Her biography is like a real-life miniseries. Again, I urge you to take time to read the whole transcript of her interview with United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Clearly, Frieda Belinfante was a heroine, fearless in the face of fascism. May her story and her legacy serve as inspiration to anyone who is called with responding to bigotry, hatred, and violence.

Video excerpts of the interview

Her interview ends:

I don’t feel proud to be a human being. I think we are the evilest creature that I ever met in general. I have met wonderful people, and that’s the only thing that keeps me alive, that they are wonderful people. And there are people that I immediately feel are a friend, you know, I felt that way when you came in. It is not the people I know. The people I know and want to know there are friends among them. And that is the only thing that keeps you alive is that there is beauty in human beings too, but not enough. And there is something that I wish I had never learned about, and that is the evil that is possible, the cruelty that is possible. The rest of it is terrible… There is a universe and we don’t understand it and I never will, but I’m part of the universe. That’s all I know.

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