A Woman to Know: Frieda Belinfante

She was feisty, indefatigable, single-minded. But more than anything, she really cared about music. — Erich Vollmer

She was feisty, indefatigable, single-minded. But more than anything, she really cared about music. — Erich Vollmer

(image via The Holocaust Memorial Museum)

In 1940, Dutch cello prodigy Frieda Belinfante celebrated a new stage of her career. The 36-year-old musician was all set to conduct her first orchestra in Amsterdam; in fact, she’d be the first woman conductor in all of Europe.

But the Nazi occupation changed Frieda’s life and put an end to her music career. As a divorced woman and well-known lesbian, Frieda had a target on her back. Her father was Jewish, but her mother was not; still, friends begged Frieda to hide her heritage and halt her relationships with women.

Instead, Frieda joined an LGBTQ Dutch resistance group. She helped scout hiding places for Jewish families and led a document forgery ring to help smuggle other queer musicians out of the country.

In 1943, however, the Nazis discovered her resistance group’s plan to destroy the Amsterdam Population Registry. As the Gestapo rounded up her fellow fighters for execution, Frieda hatched a plan to escape. Disguised as a man, she crossed Belgium and France on foot, hiking into Switzerland to seek refuge. She lived there safely until the end of the war.

In 1945, she relocated to California, where she founded the Orange County Philharmonic. She conducted until she was 90, continuing to compose for the cello and work with young activists. As she told one oral historian, “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.”

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