When Europe's First Female Orchestra Conductor Foiled the Nazis While Defying Gender Expectations
By Sarah Prager
When Frieda Belinfante was a child, she was teased for her small hands—but no one who mocked her could ever have imagined what she would achieve with them. Before her life was over, Belinfante would use her hands to master instruments, conduct orchestras, and undermine the Nazis.
A Dream Disrupted
Music was important to the Belinfante family—in fact, it was the reason the family existed: Frieda's Jewish father, Aron Belinfante, had met her Christian mother, Georgine Antoinette Hesse, when he gave her piano lessons. Frieda, the third of their four children, started learning cello from her dad when she was 9 or 10 years old.
“He was a very good pianist,” Belinfante said of her father [PDF], but “he was a very bad teacher.” She even said he “didn’t know anything about strings!” After her father died when she was 17, Belinfante continued her musical education with others. She quickly realized she wasn’t destined to be part of the orchestra—she was meant to lead it.
In 1937, Belinfante accomplished a musical milestone: She became Europe’s first professional female orchestra conductor, leading the Het Klein Orkest chamber orchestra. But her success was short-lived. Just three years later, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Performances were no longer possible during World War II, especially considering her orchestra was composed of Jews and non-Jews playing together.
After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Belinfante—though she was half-Jewish herself—stayed in the country and became a Resistance activist, making forged identity documents for fleeing Jews. She disguised herself as a man to hide from the Nazis. She once even passed her own mother on the street, who failed to recognize her. “I really looked pretty good,” Belinfante later said of her handsome camouflage.
Belinfante was a member of the CKC, a small group of mostly LGBTQ activists in the Dutch Resistance. As an out lesbian herself, she fit right in. In 1943, the CKC bombed a records office, destroying hundreds of documents showing where Jews lived so that the Nazis couldn’t find them.
Later in the war, after many in the CKC had been captured and executed, Belinfante escaped the Netherlands. She and a Jewish man named Tony traveled by foot across four countries in deep snow from December 1944 to February 1945, traversing the freezing Alps with no jacket. They hiked from 9 a.m. every morning to 10 p.m. every night. When Tony told Belinfante he was exhausted, she replied: “There is no stopping in the snow. We have to walk until we stop somewhere in Switzerland.” Once, they had to strip naked to wade through a river of icy water that came up to their necks, bundling their clothes over their heads so they’d remain dry. A Swiss doctor later told her that the journey was so strenuous, she could have lost her legs if she had gone on much longer [PDF].
Upon crossing the border, Belinfante and Tony were arrested and interrogated by the Swiss. She answered truthfully that her companion was not her husband, but she didn’t know the gravity behind this statement. Because so many people were fleeing to Switzerland, the government had begun limiting immigration by no longer accepting single men as refugees. Belinfante’s answer sent Tony back to the Netherlands, where he was killed. That knowledge haunted her to the end of her life, but she did go on to find moments of joy.
Coming Alive Again
While in the Swiss refugee camp, Belinfante got ahold of a cello, even performing a concert with a visiting couple that had a violin and viola. Decades later, she told a historian that after playing music, “I started to come alive again, because I had felt that I wasn’t even alive.” Unfortunately, the gossip of homophobic refugees in the camp soured her musical experiences there [PDF].
In 1948, Belinfante immigrated to the United States, trading the dark and icy winter of her past for a fresh start in sunny Laguna Beach, California. A decade after the start of her career as a conductor, she picked it back up again and led the Orange County Philharmonic. But while she had survived extreme discrimination in Europe, sexism took music from her again in 1962: The Philharmonic pushed her out because they felt a male in her place would raise the orchestra's profile.
Despite the professional disappointment, Belinfante lived to see Orange County designate February 19 as “Frieda Belinfante Day” to honor her contributions to the arts. In 1991, she moved to New Mexico, where she spent her final days. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I should be born again. I could have done more.”
She died of cancer at the age of 90 in 1995 at her Santa Fe home.