In the 1930s and 1940s, gender and sexuality were understood differently than they are today. When we view primary sources from this period, it is important to consider how the people involved understood their own experiences and identities at the time. The featured oral history with Frieda Belinfante—a half-Jewish lesbian woman who lived disguised as a man to escape capture by Nazi authorities—challenges us to think about her experience and her identity according to her own terms.
Belinfante was born in Amsterdam to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother in 1904. Before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Belinfante served as the first female conductor of an orchestra in Amsterdam. Once the German occupation began, she and other Jewish artists were removed from their posts in accordance with the rules of the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer). Headed by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, this organization issued strict guidelines for the arts during the years of Nazi rule.
Belinfante soon began working with Willem Arondeus, an openly gay non-Jewish member of various Dutch resistance groups. Arondeus circulated underground publications expressing his opposition to the suppression and regulation of the arts under the German occupation.1 Belinfante and the group distributed false identification cards to Jews and others living underground, but the city’s public records office held information that could expose the false cards. In 1943, Belinfante, Arondeus, and their resistance group planned to blow up the Amsterdam public records office in order to destroy the duplicate card files held there and make it safer for those carrying the false cards.2
Even within this group, Belinfante experienced rigid gender roles and dynamics. She recalls that while there were other women involved, none were allowed to take part in the bomb plot because the male leadership decided that it was too difficult and dangerous. Kept from participating directly, Belinfante could do nothing the night of the bombing except listen for sounds of an explosion from a faraway roof—even though she was the one who had come up with the idea for the attack. She attributes this decision to a false sense of superiority among men that has "not yet been dealt with in this world."
Although the plot was successful, 11 members of the group were arrested and executed, including Arondeus. Belinfante escaped arrest by disguising herself as a man for three months before escaping to Switzerland. In this clip, she describes how this disguise came together and how she then lived in Amsterdam under an assumed male identity. She often walked by people she knew—including her own mother—without being recognized. Belinfante says that she "could have been a boy" and was easily able to adopt the dress and mannerisms of a man. She also produces a studio portrait of herself wearing the men's suit and haircut described in her testimony. Though it is unclear exactly when and why the portrait was taken, Belinfante appears quite confident—perhaps even defiant—in this photograph.
Belinfante's story cannot be easily classified. She was a woman and a musician in a time where the arts were dominated by men, a half-Jewish resistance fighter living under Nazi domination, and a lesbian woman who faced open discrimination and repressive gender norms. Belinfante says that she never felt the need to hide her sexuality to protect herself. "This is the way I am made," Belinfante says, "I can’t change it."
To what extent can or should we impose our own assumptions about gender and sexuality onto this testimony? Belinfante self-identifies as a lesbian woman, but how are we to understand her comments and experiences surrounding gender identities? She explains at one point that she has always had "a lot of qualities" to indicate that she "could have been a boy." Could there be a link between the sexism of the resistance group and Belinfante's choice to disguise herself as a man? Could her testimony be considered a trans experience, or would this be imposing our present-day understandings onto historical events? Belinfante's story raises questions about gender identity and fluidity during the 1930s and 1940s and presents a complex picture of life as a lesbian woman under Nazi rule.3