“The moment you start to be concerned with what people think, you sink. Work with what you have, try to get what you can get, try to do to yourself what you can to improve” – Frieda Belinfante, 1994
Throughout her lifetime, Frieda Belinfante had faced persecution and prejudice for three distinct reasons: her half-Jewish heritage, her sexual orientation, and her position as a woman in the field of orchestral conducting. Yet, she never allowed this to hold her back from achieving what she wanted to do. She was a pioneer, a radical, and a fighter who worked tirelessly to help those less fortunate than herself. She was determined never to reflect too deeply on the past and what she had endured throughout the war, but to remain focused on her future. On her resistance activities during the war, she reflected: “I had a satisfaction to do illegal work for a good purpose – that was my justification to do it. Excitement in music is not illegal, it’s not destructive…In other words, everything can be expressed in music”. Frieda’s extraordinary life story demonstrates the importance of music as part of Jewish culture and Holocaust memory, but also emphasises the experiences of LGBTQI+ individuals both during and after the war.
Frieda Belinfante was born in Amsterdam to parents Aron Belinfante and Georgine Antoinette Hesse, on 10 May 1904. She was one of four siblings the couple shared, though would later discover she had another half-brother. Her father Aron identified as fully Jewish, descendent from a line of Sephardic Jews who arrived in the Netherlands in the 17th Century. Though Aron’s family were relatively religious, he married a gentile, having fallen in love with Georgine. In Frieda’s own words, she was part of an “unusual” family, in which the children were raised under no specific religion. She recalled being encouraged by her father to explore the options available to her, noting: “there was no church in our life designated to be ours”. Aron’s decision to train and work as a pianist and tutor, rather than a doctor as his parents had wished, meant the family had a very limited income. While Georgine was not particularly musical, each of the children had weekly music lessons, though not from their father who was too busy running his own music school. Aron regularly played concerts across the Netherlands and was able to play Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas from memory; he also started the Federation of Music Teachers in Holland.
At the age of 10, Frieda started to play the cello. She and her siblings, who all learned different instruments, would perform music in the family home. While Frieda was becoming proficient in her craft, however, her sister passed away when she was 11 years old; this led to the deterioration of her parents’ marriage, from which her mother would never emotionally recover. This tragedy added to an already strained relationship related to their religious differences. The couple divorced in 1915, and Frieda went back and forth between their two homes. During this time, she continued to attend public school and receive cello lessons from various teachers before following in Aron’s footsteps by pursuing a career in music. She graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory and made her professional debut in the Kleine Zaal recital hall of the Concertgebouw at the age of 17, assisted at the piano by her father, shortly before he passed away in 1923.