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 - Rosa den Oudsten -

Frieda Belifante was born in Amsterdam in 1904 as the third daughter of a family of four children. Her father was a Jewish musician who encouraged his children to pick up a musical instrument. Frieda’s life started out pretty ordinarily, but she soon discovered that she favoured girls over boys. Her parents were very liberal and for them this wasn’t an issue. 


When she was 17, Frieda became part of Het Amsterdamsche Trio with Henriette Bosmans and Johan Feltkamp. She had been playing the cello for as long as she could remember, but during this time, she discovered her love for conducting. She also became involved with both of the members of her group. First, she lived with Henriette from 1922 till 1929. After ending this relationship, she married Johan – partly because that was what women were supposed to do, and partly because of financial reasons. Johan did love her, but it was not enough, and they split up in 1936. 


Frieda proceeded with her career as a conductor and followed several courses, including one in Switzerland, where she also won a prestigious prize. In 1938, Frieda established ‘Het Kleine Orkest’, an orchestra with 20 members, and she conducted the group herself. With this orchestra, she achieved some fame, and the group performed in the Concertgebouw. Even though Frieda is openly gay, she garners much respect for her work, which is something quite extraordinary for this time. 


The award ceremony for Frieda’s achievements with the Swiss orchestra never takes place, as it is 1939 and Europe plummets into a state of war.  When the nazis occupy the Netherlands a year later, she disbands her Kleine Orkest too. She didn’t want to work for the oppressor, neither did she want to fire the musicians because of their Jewish heritage.  


Frieda joined the resistance early on during the German occupation of the Netherlands. She produced fake ID carts and helped people find hiding places. In 1943 she and other members of her group decided that the population register of Amsterdam, where all ID cards were stored, was becoming a threat for their operation. They plan to attack the building and destroy the ID cards. Some members of the resistance find the operation itself too dangerous for a woman, so Frieda isn’t allowed to participate. The operation itself was succesfull, however, the nazis found the men involved and executed them all. They also discovered Frieda’s part in the attack and she flees the country for Switzerland, disguised as a man. She ended up in a refugee camp there, but her former teacher in Switzerland finds a way to get her out. Frieda stayed in Switzerland for the remainder of the war. 


When Frieda returned to the Netherlands, she quickly decided she no longer wanted to be there. Many people went on as if the war never happened, lots of people escaped punishment, and antisemitism continued after the horrors of the Holocaust. She also found it harder to find work as a woman. 


In 1947, Frieda officially emigrated to the United States. After roaming the country, she settled just outside of Los Angeles. She became the first female conductor with a permanent position with the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955, an orchestra that she had established herself. She conducted this group for almost 10 years, but she was replaced in 1962. Frieda always thought it had to do with her sexual orientation. Despite this, she continued to teach for many years and in 1967, she found the love of her life, with whom she stayed together for the rest of her life.  


Frieda Belinfante passed away in 1995 from cancer at the age of 90 in Sana Fe, New Mexico. During her time in America, she never talked about the war or the resistance. The Dutch long forgot about her, but luckily more and more people are now telling her story.


Image: Unknown photographer, Photo of Frieda Belinfante (1943). Amsterdamse politiearchief Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


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