“In vain […] I tried through black humor, provocation, defiance to shake my contemporaries out of their blissful conformism, their complacency.”
Claude Cahun was born Lucy Schwob on October 25, 1894, in Nantes, France. They were a photographer, a writer, surrealist, performer, and a radical activist working to play with and expand upon ways of thinking about gender and sexuality. In 1919, they adopted the name Claude Cahun, Claude being a gender-neutral name in French.
At age 17, Claude met Suzanne Malherbe and began a lifelong romantic partnership; Suzanne later adopted the name to Marcel Moore, another gender-neutral name. Claude’s father eventually married Marcel’s mother, making them step-siblings as well. The public perception of them as sisters helped to diffuse much of the homophobia their close relationship may have otherwise encountered.
Both worked in Paris as artists, though Marcel’s work is less well-known, and Claude called Marcel “the other me.” Marcel worked largely as an illustrator, while Claude’s subversive photography questioned gender and self in a society where gender was rigidly enforced. Claude’s work is termed as self-portraiture, with costume and self-staging involved, and is considered the forerunner of contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. Much of Claude’s work was photographed with the help of Marcel, and in this way the term “self” portraiture applies only as much as Marcel counted as “the other [Claude]”. Throughout their lives, they would work together in a model of co-creativity.
In 1937, the couple moved from Paris to Jersey, in the Channel Islands off the coast of France, in hopes of providing a quiet respite for Claude’s chronic health problems. They chose to stay there when the Nazis invaded in 1940, and Claude, who was Jewish, avoided the mandatory registration of Jews. As Jeffrey Jackson, a history professor at Rhodes College stated: “They [had] a lot of reasons not to do anything. As lesbians, as French women living in exile, there [were] lots of things to suggest they should keep their heads down. But instead, they [stuck] their necks out.”
Claude and Marcel used their artwork to protest Nazi crimes and inspire mutiny among German troops. The two would create anti-German fliers and leaflets, attending military events to place anti-German propaganda in pockets of soldiers, on chairs, and thrown in crumpled balls into windows of cars and homes. All of the pieces were written in fluent German and signed “The soldier without a name.” Nazi officers lived in a hotel across the street from the couple, but they successfully hid themselves as two old ladies, presenting themselves only as sisters. In 1944, they were finally caught, arrested and charged with listening to the BBC and inciting troops to rebellion. They were imprisoned for a year and sentenced to death, but were spared when the Allies liberated Jersey.
Claude’s already poor health suffered in imprisonment, and they died of a pulmonary embolism in 1954. Marcel committed suicide in 1972. The couple are buried together at St. Brelade’s Church.
“Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”
“I feel very lonesome if there’s nobody that I can help and love and protect. And I don’t understand people that can only live for themselves. I can’t understand it. Where do you get your happiness, where do you get your satisfaction? What do you do with your life?”
Frieda Belinfante was born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1904. A cellist and a conductor from a musical family, she was the first woman in Europe to be artistic director and conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble. She was a lesbian, and through her father she was also half-Jewish; she adamantly insisted that neither of these labels defined her.
When the Nazis occupied Holland, she set aside her flourishing career in music to become active in the Dutch underground, working with her friend Willem Arondeus. The resistance group’s primary duty was forging official documents that allowed Jews and others being hunted by the Nazis to flee the country. When the Gestapo began to suspect documents were being forged, members of the group bombed City Hall’s population registry in order to destroy official records that could disprove forged documents and reveal the location of Jews who were living in hiding. Through this effort, the identities of hundreds of Jewish residents were destroyed and, as a result, they were saved from being sent to death camps. Though she was involved in the planning, as a woman, Frieda was not allowed to directly participate in the bombing in order to not arouse suspicion.
After the bombing, Frieda disguised herself as a man for three months, disguised so effectively that even her own mother did not recognize her. Eventually she escaped Holland with the help of various countries’ resistance networks. When she arrived in neutral Switzerland, she was arrested by authorities and eventually placed in a refugee camp. In the camp, she offered free cello lessons to spread happiness through music.
After the war, she returned to the Netherlands, where she was disappointed by her perception that individuals who had fought were given little credit while those who did nothing seemed to be succeeding. Because of this, she emigrated to the United States in 1947. In 1954, she founded the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra in California. Unfortunately, popular preference for a male conductor and rumors about her lesbianism contributed to her dismissal from the orchestra in 1962. Fifteen years later, Orange County would finally acknowledge her contributions by declaring a ‘Frieda Belinfante Day.’
Frieda died in 1995 at age 90 of cancer.
A former colleague said: “She was feisty, indefatigable, single-minded. But more than anything, she really cared about music, and she wanted to share the art with a broad-based community. She can be credited for starting an extraordinary tradition for quality music.”
(On discussing her experience as a lesbian with others): “No, I never even mentioned it. Because it doesn’t make any difference to me. I have always met every human being like an equal. I think a human being is a human being, however he is born is how he is born and has to live with it.”
“Every group had a counselor. And above all the counselors was Fredy. Fredy was admired by everyone. And when you look at [their group photo], you grasp the catastrophe. All of these children perished. Out of all these children, only a handful survived.”
- Dita Kraus, an Auschwitz survivor who knew Hirsch from Prague and Theresienstadt
Alfred Hirsch, known as Fredy, was born in Aachen, Germany in 1916. In Aachen, he began his career as a teacher and educator in various Jewish youth organizations. An enthusiastic and talented athlete, Fredy also worked with Jewish sports associations. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, he fled to Czechoslovakia, where he believed he would be safe.
In 1939, the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia and began implementing laws against Jews. Among the many laws, the Nazis forbade Jewish children from attending school, joining clubs and teams, and visiting public places. To remedy this, Fredy arranged a wide variety of educational activities, classes, and sports programs for Jewish children. Children who survived the war would remember the activities Hirsch arranged fondly, gymnastics classes and soccer games which made their lives seem a little more normal and bearable. He was also involved in Zionist causes and assisted in efforts to bring Jewish children to Palestine.
When he was deported to Theresienstadt in December 1941, Fredy organized activities for the children there. He set up games, including soccer and track and field events, in the grassy areas of the camp.
Fredy was described as athletic, attractive, and extremely caring. He made sure that the children kept themselves as clean as possible despite the lack of hot water and soap, even running cleanliness competitions. Survivors remember him as a kind and reassuring presence to the children.
In September 1943, Fredy and 5,000 other people were sent to Auschwitz. This transport was moved into an empty camp at Auschwitz called the Family Camp. Fredy supervised the hundreds of children in the camp. He did everything he could to make life better for the children, even in the middle of Auschwitz. Through his charm and impeccable bearing, he managed to convince the SS to provide more food and to treat them better overall. Tragically, Fredy was unable to save them. In March 1944, all the children who arrived on the September transport were murdered by the Nazis. The circumstances of Fredy’s death are unknown, but it is thought that he went to the gas chambers with the children.
Not only is Fredy remembered for the quality of life that he provided for children, but his refusal to leave them; throughout his imprisonment, was given several opportunities to escape, but always refused to leave the children behind.
“Fredy was completely open about his sexuality. Everyone knew he was gay, everyone knew he had a lover […] during my work I discovered that people accepted his sexuality. People talked about him in a warm and humane way.”
-Rubi Gat, director of the biographical documentary “Dear Fredy”
“He was the great hero who was most willing to give his life for the cause.”
-Frieda Belinfante, describing Willem Arondeus.
Willem Arondeus was born in 1894 in Amsterdam. At age 17, his relationship with his family broke down over the reveal of his homosexuality, and he left home never to maintain regular contact again. Once he was on his own, he worked as a painter, befriending other artists and forming a strong social network. He also turned to writing when painting did not help him to make ends meet.
Same-sex relationships had been legal in the Netherlands for over 100 years, and Willem was very open about his sexuality. However, when Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, they quickly oversaw the re-criminalization of homosexuality. Willem was one of the first to join the Dutch resistance.
Willem published anti-Nazi pamphlets and recruited others to join the resistance, including his friend Frieda Belinfante. One of the resistance’s major activities was forging identity papers for Jews and others being hunted by the Nazis, which capitalized on Willem’s skills as an artist.
Eventually, the Nazis began to catch on to the false documents and began to compare them to public records, revealing Jews who were in hiding. The resistance came up with a plan. On the night of March 27, 1943, dressed as a German Army captain, Willem marched into the Public Records Office with a dozen members of the Resistance. They drugged the guards, placed explosives, and made history. By destroying hundreds of records they saved the lives of those whose identity the Gestapo could no longer track.
Within a few days, someone had betrayed the entire group that had bombed the office, and the Gestapo captured them all, including Willem. He took full responsibility for the bombing, but they were tried in a sham trial, where everyone was condemned to death. The Nazis executed all 13 of the fighters involved by firing squad on July 1, 1943.
Willem has been declared a Righteous Among the Nations, an honor used to describe non-Jewish people who put themselves at risk to defend the Jews during the Holocaust. He has the legacy of being considered one of the most dedicated and creative members of the Dutch Underground during WWII.
His famous final words were:
"Let it be known. Homosexuals are not cowards.”
“I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life, no matter how dire the straits.”
Gerhard “Gad” Beck was born June 30, 1923 in Berlin, Germany. His father was Jewish and his mother converted; he grew up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays. When the Nazis took power, he was considered a “mischling” (individual of “mixed” ancestry). In 1943, Gad and his father were seized by Nazis, and his mother was among a group of Gentile wives who participated in the famous Rosenstrasse protest. One of the few successful peaceful protests, several civilians descended on the detention center en masse, the majority of them Gentile women, and demanded that the Nazis release their husbands and sons. The protest lasted several days despite threats from the soldiers that they would shoot into the crowd if they didn’t disperse. The protesters were resolute, and eventually the men were freed.
After his release, Gad helped to form Chug Chaluzi, an underground Zionist resistance youth group that provided underground support to Jews living illegally in the city. At one point, he disguised himself in a Hitler youth uniform to rescue his lover Manfred Lewin from a deportation center, though Lewin refused to abandon his family. The Lewin family was later deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
Despite the Nazi regime’s persecution of gay people Gad believed his homosexuality assisted his resistance activities: ‘As a homosexual, I was able to turn to my trusted non-Jewish, homosexual acquaintances to help supply food and hiding places.’
In 1945, just before the end of the war, Gad was betrayed by a Gestapo spy and taken to a German concentration camp. He was soon liberated by Allied forces. Gad moved with his family to pre-state Israel (Mandate of Palestine) in 1947, and spent the next several years working to help other Jews move there as well.
In 1979, Gad returned to Germany, where he was appointed the director of the Jewish Adult Education Center. Through his actions as director of the Center, such as welcoming sexologist research and organizing meetings for gay singles, he was a significant figure in helping to break down the homophobic barriers that continued to exist in Germany well after the war had ended. He was widely described as open, sweet, and extroverted.
Gad died in 2012 at age 88, six days before his 89th birthday. He was survived by Julius Laufer, his partner of 35 years.
(On life as a gay Jew): “God doesn’t punish for a life of love.”