Frieda Belinfante, born in 1904 in Amsterdam to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, opens her oral testimony by noting that she has "a lot of qualities" to indicate that she "could have been born a boy," but that by chance she was born a girl. From her description of the first woman she loved, to her failed marriage to a man, to her relentless struggle for recognition as a female musician and conductor, Belinfante's story presents a multifaceted picture of life as a gay woman under Nazi occupation and raises questions about gender identity and fluidity during the 1930s and 1940s.1
Before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Belinfante served as the first female conductor of an orchestra in Amsterdam. Once the 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 disseminated strict guidelines for the arts under National Socialism. Belinfante soon allied herself with Willem Arondeus, a non-Jewish and openly gay member of various Dutch resistance groups. Arondeus circulated underground publications expressing his opposition to the suppression and regulation of the arts under Nazi occupation.2 In 1943, Belinfante, Arondeus, and their resistance group planned to blow up the Amsterdam Public Records office in order to erase all documentation of the city's Jewish population.3
Even within this group, Belinfante noted 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 determined that it was too difficult and dangerous. Belinfante 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, however, 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, often walking by people she knew—including her own mother—without being recognized. Belinfante's earlier remarks about her "boyish qualities" seem to be reinforced by how easily she describes adopting the dress and mannerisms of a man. She then 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 Jewish resistance fighter living under Nazi occupation, and a gay woman in an era of homophobia and repressive gender norms. Belinfante's wartime activities aside, her testimony is in part defined by its ambiguity: Is this a transgender story? To what extent can we impose our contemporary assumptions about transgender identity onto historical experience? Is there a link between the favoring of men among the resistance group in the carrying-out of dangerous work and Belinfante's choice to disguise herself as a man? While her narrative may resist definitive analysis, it opens up many avenues of interpretation, as well as opportunities to reflect upon our own expectations and assumption about her remarkable story.