Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Born in the Netherlands in 1904, Frieda Belinfante was one of the first female orchestra conductors in Europe. But Belinfante wasn’t just a musician—she was also an active member of the Dutch resistance in World War II, and her courageous acts helped save many lives. And, Belinfante was a proud lesbian, who faced discrimination because of who she loved. Eventually, Belinfante escaped the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States in 1947, where she made music throughout the rest of her life.
Lea DeLaria seems to have achieved overnight stardom with her three time, SAG Award winning, stand-out role as ‘Carrie ‘Big Boo’ Black’ in the Netflix hit series “Orange is the New Black.” However, DeLaria’s multi- faceted career as a comedian, actress and jazz musician, has in fact, spanned decades. Lea holds the distinction of being the first openly gay comic on television in America which led to countless acting roles. Lea has released six jazz albums, and her book “Lea’s Book of Rules for the World” is in its third printing.
|Once upon a time, there was a girl who dared to resist injustice and refused to be anybody but herself. Her name was Frieda.
When Frieda was a child, music floated through the halls of her home in Amsterdam. Frieda’s father was a classical pianist, and all three of her siblings played instruments, too.
When Frieda was about 10 years old, she learned to play the cello—a big string instrument with a warm, mellow sound. When Frieda’s fingers moved over its strings, she felt the vibrations sparkle through her body.
There was something magical about music. With each soaring note, each quiet pause, and each diving run, Frieda saw thousands of stories come to life.
Sometimes, when she closed her eyes, she imagined herself on a stage as part of an orchestra, moving her bow to the beat of the conductor’s baton. And then, she saw a different image: Herself as the conductor, each movement of her hand drawing out another melody and changing the story.
It was the 1910s, though, and Frieda had never seen a woman conductor before.
But Frieda wouldn’t let a thing like that ever hold her back.
|I’m Lea DeLaria. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Frieda Belinfante. Pioneering musical conductor, freedom fighter, proud lesbian, and lifelong teacher.
When Frieda was 17, she made her professional debut. The lovely sounds of Frieda’s cello echoed off the concert hall’s cream-colored walls and filled up the spectators’ hearts.
Frieda continued to perform, and she also taught lessons to children.
One day, a parent of one of Frieda’s students asked Frieda to apply for a job teaching music at a nearby high school. When Frieda interviewed, the principal told her that the students were “hooligans.”
“They are hard to handle,” he said, “so I think I am better off hiring a man.”
But a few years later, Frieda got a phone call. The man the principal hired had quit—and the principal wanted to hire Frieda instead!
When Frieda started teaching her new students, she found they were no trouble at all. She loved teaching them to put their hearts and souls into each note they played.
As her conductor’s baton swished through the air, the kids’ eyes followed her every movement.
Soon after, a choir from Amsterdam University asked Frieda to conduct them as well. Together, they gave a big concert with 110 singers and musicians on stage.
The musicians begged her to do more. So they continued performing.
Following one of their shows, a woman approached her. “If you can do that with an amateur orchestra… imagine what you could do with professionals,” she gushed.
Frieda’s heart warmed to the praise, but she frowned. “Well, I wouldn’t get professionals to play for me,” she said.
“Why not try it?” the woman asked.
|FIRST FEMALE CONDUCTOR
So, Frieda recruited professional musicians and formed her own orchestra. They rehearsed for months. She memorized their music and knew every note from every instrument by heart.
Frieda loved the music that poured out of them. She loved how it felt to conduct them. And she loved the way they responded to each small gesture she made.
A while later, Frieda’s best friend pulled her aside.
“You can’t just… get up there and say, ‘I’m a conductor,’” her friend said. “You haven’t even been trained as a conductor!”
Frieda’s face flushed. “No, but I’ve had my eyes and ears open,” she said.
“You’re going to be out as a cellist too!” her friend argued, “You’ll ruin your good reputation!”
Frieda jutted out her chin defiantly, and said, “If I think I can do it, I will do it.”
In November 1937, Frieda’s orchestra gave their first concert.
At the beginning of the performance, Frieda stepped up onto the conductor’s podium. She gave a slight bow to the audience, and then, she turned to her musicians. She raised her baton.
With a wave of her arms, the music began.
Her musicians moved their fingers and bows with brilliant precision. When they finished, the hall was filled with applause.
Reviews of the concert were glowing: “Frieda Belinfante has a talent for conducting,” one critic wrote.
With that, Frieda became one of the female orchestra conductors in Europe. And Frieda’s friend never tried to stand in the way of her dreams again!
Frieda continued conducting, but a cloud soon loomed over Frieda’s success.
Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, and in the years that followed, Frieda sensed a storm “coming closer and closer” every year.
Then, in May 1940, Nazi troops invaded Frieda’s country.
Violence spread across the Netherlands, and fear grew in Frieda’s heart.
In the 1930s and 40s, Nazis made laws that targeted and harmed Jewish people. They arrested and killed millions of Jews and other innocent individuals—just because of their religion, ethnicity, and who they were.
Frieda was half-Jewish, and under Nazi laws, that didn’t make her a “real Jew.” But Frieda had many Jewish friends and family members.
And there was something else that put Frieda at risk, too: Her greatest loves and romantic partners were women. And Nazis sent people like her—and the lesbian and gay friends she often hung out with—to prison camps, too.
It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. And Frieda wouldn’t stand for it.
Frieda joined forces with other artists and freedom fighters in Amsterdam to create what became known as the Dutch resistance.
To do her part, Frieda became an expert at forging documents.
The Nazis required that all Jewish people carry an ID stamped with the letter “J.” So Frieda and her friends made new papers without the “J”—so that the Jews who came to them could find safety.
The smells of ink and glue surrounded Frieda as she worked. With a small blade in hand, she carefully cut bits off of one document and pasted them onto another.
One day, when a Jewish couple missed their appointment to pick up their papers, Frieda went to their home.
Members of the Nazi police, the Gestapo, were there!
They arrested Frieda and threw her into the back of their car. But as he questioned her, Frieda played dumb. They took her back to headquarters but as they questioned her, Frieda played dumb. The officers got so frustrated that they finally let her go! Frieda ran home as fast as she could.
But Frieda and her friends knew there was one major flaw in their forgery operation: There were duplicates of the real documents in Amsterdam’s civil registry office.
So they made a dangerous plan: They would destroy the duplicates, too.
In March 1943, resistance members who were dressed as policemen entered the civil registry office and said they were searching for explosives. They cleared out any staff and security guards and then, when no one was watching, set off their own explosives!
The fire raged, burning through stacks and piles of papers. By the time the firefighters put out the flames, hundreds of thousands of documents were destroyed.
It was a huge victory!
But it came at a cost. Twelve of Frieda’s collaborators were arrested—and killed.
Frieda’s heart ached at the loss of her friends. She was afraid she might be next.
So, she came up with a new plan: She would dress like a man, and she would go into hiding.
Frieda made herself new identity documents, put on a suit, and went to a barber.
“Shave?” the barber asked.
Her heart beat loud in her chest, and she took a deep breath. Just a cut, she told him in a low voice. She watched as locks of her dark hair floated to the ground.
For three months, Frieda stayed with one friend and then another. But she knew was endangering them all.
So, Frieda decided to escape.
Frieda joined forces with Tonnie [Tony], another refugee, to find their way to safety. More than once, they were chased by the Gestapo and had to run for it.
Finally, they made their way to the border between France and Switzerland. By then, France was in Nazi control, but Switzerland was a neutral country.
Frieda and Tonnie [Tony] swam across an icy river. Then they walked in the mountains for 12 hours without stopping, their feet crunching on the snow.
When they finally entered Switzerland, they were arrested by Swiss authorities, separated, and forced to prove they were refugees.
They asked if Frieda and Tonnie [Tony], who was a man, were married.
Frieda thought it was best to be honest. So she said no.
But Frieda didn’t know that the Swiss had recently decided to only accept female refugees—unless they were married to the men who traveled with them.
So Tonnie [Tony] was sent back into France’s snowy mountains—and dangerous Nazi territory. Sadly, her friend would later be killed in a Nazi concentration camp.
Frieda would always wish she had given a different answer.
Frieda was placed in a camp with 160 other Dutch refugees. After all she had lost, she felt dead inside. She didn’t know she could go on. She didn’t understand how such horrible things could happen.
But several months later, in 1945, the Nazis surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
When Frieda returned to Amsterdam, nothing was the same. Nobody talked about the war. People who had cooperated with the Nazis still held powerful positions—including as leaders of orchestras.
In Frieda’s heart, the music was gone. She didn’t know if she’d ever get it back.
|NEW BEGINNINGSSo in 1947, Frieda decided to make a change. She packed her bags and her cello and moved to the United States.
Eventually, she landed in California, where she shared a house with her new partner.
Frieda began playing cello again. She performed concerts and played for Hollywood studios.
One day, one of her fellow performers asked if she was that famous female conductor from the Netherlands.
Frieda said yes.
“Would you like to conduct?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. Then she laughed. “But you can’t just say… ‘I am a conductor, where is my orchestra?’”
The man told her that there were many musicians in Hollywood who were tired of playing movie scores. They wanted to play symphonies—not sound effects!
So in the early 1950s, he helped Frieda create a new music group. And at almost 50 years old, for the second time, Frieda was conducting her own professional orchestra.
After months of rehearsal, they performed their first concert.
When they played their last note, the audience gave them a standing ovation—which turned into 12 curtain calls!
They just wouldn’t stop clapping!
THE WORK CONTINUES
Frieda conducted the Orange County Philharmonic until 1962.
Then, the people in charge suggested a man might be better suited to be the conductor. They also seemed to think it was a problem that Frieda had romantic relationships with women.
Frieda was heartbroken to once again lose an orchestra she had helped create. But never gave up—on music, or on being herself.
For years, she taught conducting and cello at UCLA. She built up community music programs, and she never stopped working with young people.
Frieda Belinfante broke down gender barriers to become one of the first female orchestra conductors in Europe.
She fought against the injustices of the Nazis, putting her life on the line each day.
And she lived her life boldly and without shame, proud to be exactly who she was.
But more than anything, she devoted her life to helping people—from her music students to her friends to her Jewish neighbors.
As Frieda once said, “I don’t understand people that can only live for themselves… Where do you get your happiness? Where do you get your satisfaction? What do you do with your life? There must be somebody who needs help. There always is.”