The Woman Who Defied Franco and Hitler

I have always admired strong women. I come from a long line of them, my female ancestors were farmers and ranchers’ wives, immigrants, wives of military men and many had upwards of five to ten children. They didn’t have easy lives, but they stood up for what they believed in and they believed in the power of women. It seems that, even today in the 21st century, women are still discovering their own power. Their power in voting, buying and building communities. Todays women are almost shadows to those who came before us, and we need to remember how powerful women are when we lift up and support each other.

 

Family and Franco

Today I want to share with you the story of another powerful woman, as there have been many stories already shared in this blog. Her name was Neus Catala. Neus was born in Els Guiamets, Spain on October 6, 1915. Els Guiamets is a small area just south of Barcelona and not far from the southern French border. Her parents Rosa Palleja and Bahasar Catala, were part of a free-thinking family.

In 1929 at the age of fourteen Neus demanded that women working the areas grape harvest be paid the same amount as a man doing the same work. It is not known if she succeeded, but it took a lot of moxie to ask for that in a time before women’s liberation.

By the 1930’s Neus joins the communist youth, she remained a card carrying communist her entire life. Her beliefs reinforced by what she would witness under Franco and Hitler. In 1936 when the Spanish Civil war began, Neus moved to Barcelona and became a nurse, receiving her diploma in 1937.

When Barcelona fell to Franco’s fascist troops in 1939, she was in charge of the Les Acacies Orphanage in Premia, a town just to the north of Barcelona. She was tasked with caring for one hundred and eighty orphaned children, most whom were victims of the civil war and had lost their families. To keep the children safe and out of the hands of the Franco regime, Neus lead the children on a daring escape!

Through snow and falling bombs, Neus led the children across the Pyrenees mountains and into France. Hitlers war was yet to enter France, thus for awhile she and the children were safe. She led them just beyond Toulouse, and into the small town of Carsac-Alliac.

 

Neus in Ravensbruck.

Taking on Hitler

Once settled in Carsac, Neus began working with the resistance. It was already clear that Hitler would not stop with Poland, he wanted all of Europe under his control. She worked tirelessly with the resistance and eventually became the leader of her group.

After the war, Neus was quoted as saying “in the civil war and the second world war, we women were not assistants, we were fighters”. As the second world war raged on across Europe, Neus continued her fight against the Nazis, but found time to marry a man named Albert Roger, a French citizen. Together they worked against the Nazi’s. Neus would often carry weapons, false papers and coded messages through Nazi checkpoints, using her charm and wit to successfully evade capture.

She could not evade capture forever. In November of 1943 she was arrested by the Gestapo. After her arrest she was taken to Limoges where she was tortured and interrogated. A few months later, in February of 1944, she became prisoner #27534 in the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp. In Ravensbruck she witnessed the deaths of her friends. The seven women she shared a hut with, were all killed. Sometime between 1944 and 1945, she was transferred from Ravensbruck to Flossenberg, where she was forced labor to mine granite. She also worked in an ammunitions factory where she sabotaged bullets and bombs. After Flossenberg, she was sent to Bergen-Belsen.

She was released at the end of the war from Bergen-Belsen and shortly thereafter, her husband passed away.

 

Neus, daughter Margeritte and niece Rosana. 1957

Post War Life

After the war Neus moved on with her life, she remarried another Spanish exile named Felix Sancho. They had two children together, Margarita and Lluis, both of which surprised her as she had thought that the medical experiments, she underwent in Ravensbruck had left her sterile.

After the Franco regime fell in 1978, she and Felix returned to Spain and settled in Rubi, near Barcelona. She devoted her time to leading anti-fascist movements, including the Amical de Ravensbruck, an anti-fascist group of Ravensbruck survivors. She spoke to children at school about her experiences where she was known for her directness and passion.

She also tracked down other Ravensbruck camp survivors and collected their stories into a book, Resistance and Deportation: 50 Testimonies of Spanish Women. The book was published in 1984.

In 2010 she suffered a bad fall that sent her to a convalescent home in her home town. While there she worked with Carme Marti on a novelized version of her life called Un Cel de Plum (A Leaden Sky) that was published in 2012.

Neus was also widely honored Catalonia, 2015 was Officially Neus Catala Year.

Neus receiving one of her accolades.

Neus passed away at the age of 103 on April 13, 2019. She was the last living survivor of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Her obituary was carried by the Washington Post, New York Times and The Gaudian newspapers. Throughout her post war life, she received several commendations from various groups:

2005 Creu de Sant Jordi

2006 EUiA Alternative Prize

2007 Prem. Dignitat of the Comissio de la Dignitat

2014 Gold Medal for Civic Merit of the city of Barcelona

2015 (the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Ravensbruck) Centennial Medal of the Generalitat

Throughout her life Neus fought for what she believed in. She risked her life so that others could be free and live their own lives, she fought to make sure orphaned children were allowed to grow up and become free citizens to make their lives an example of her courage. We should all be as courageous as Neus and the other men and women whose stories I have told and will continue to tell in this blog.

 

It takes great courage to stand up and say that something is wrong, but it takes even greater courage to fight against it. It doesn’t matter if the fight is a protest march, a letter writing campaign or a sticker on your car bumper, it takes great courage to stand up for what you believe. In America we talk a lot about people’s rights, I was always taught that my rights ended when they infringed on someone else’s. I often wonder what this world would be like if we all started just respecting each other, loving each other and learning how to live and support each other in positive ways. We will never fully agree on each other’s beliefs or ideals, but we can learn to live and love each other and build a better world for all of us.

I hope that you have enjoyed this blog and will share it with your friends and family. I will be back in to share more stories of courage and strength with you, until next time!

She Was Just a Girl?

Let me start by saying “thank you” to all those who wished me a speedy recovery and to all those who checked out my archives while I was gone for this past month. I am fully recovered now. I had my gallbladder taken out, there were a couple of setbacks, but all is well again and I am back to share with you the stories of WWII and the Holocaust.

 

If we stop and really think about the world around us, those we know and don’t know, we would find so much more than we were looking for. In todays world there are movements all around us, some you may agree with and some you may not, but what we have to understand is that these people are fighting for the same rights that you already enjoy. LGBTQ people just want to be able to marry and live a happy life with the person they love. Women’s movements want the same pay as a man doing the same job and they want to be able to live their lives without the constant fear of sexual harassment and/or abuse. These lists of movements could go on for the rest of this blog, however I want you to meet someone who will change the way you view the world and I hope that it is for a more open and tolerant world, one filled with love and not hate.

 

A Brilliant Talent

Frieda Belinfante was born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1904. Her father, Aron Belinfante, was Jewish. Her mother, was a gentile. Her father was a music teacher and a concert pianist, so music filled the Belinfante home. Frieda came from a long line of Sephardic Jews that were talented musicians.

By the age of ten, Frieda was playing the cello. At the young age of seventeen, she made her professional debut at Kleine Zaal Recital Hall of the Concertgebouw (a famous recital hall in Amsterdam). Frieda was incredibly talented and gifted in music. She studied the cello in Paris and began directing high school, college and professional chamber music ensembles.

She began her conducting career in Amsterdam in the 1930’s. She took first place in a conducting class taught by Hermann Scherchen (famous and very influential German conductor), in which she beat twelve men for the title. She conducted 6-8 formal concerts a year and was the first woman in Europe to be the artistic director and coordinator of the Het Klein Orkest (a chamber orchestra) that she was invited to form in 1937 by the managers of the Concertgebouw musical hall.

Frieda had a long-term relationship with famous Dutch composer and pianist, Henriette Bosmans. Even though Frieda married briefly in 1931, to a man who pursued her relentlessly, including threating to kill himself with a pistol if she did not marry him, it is no wonder the marriage did not last. However, Frieda and Henriette maintained a seven-year relationship, even living together at one point.

Frieda and Henriette. Photo- wikimedia commons and USHMM

Frieda was a prominent lesbian, she did not hide her sexual orientation from those around her, she was close to Willem Arondeus, an openly gay Dutch artist and author. It is Arondeus that introduced Frieda to the Dutch underground resistance movement.

The War Comes to Amsterdam

In 1943 the war is raging across Europe and in each country, resistance groups have sprung up to fight the Nazi invasion. In the Netherlands there was the Raad van Verzt (Resistance Council) in which Willem is a leader.

When asked why she joined the resistance Frieda said “I thought the law was wrong…So, I took the law into my hands and changed it”. Frieda was a target for the Nazi’s for two reason, she was half Jewish and she was a lesbian.

Where ever the Nazi’s came in, they created a registry office that contained the lists of all the Jews in the area. These lists were used to round up Jews and ship them off to concentration camps, it was also where identities could be verified. By this time Frieda, Willem and other members of the Resistance Council had begun creating forged identity cards to help Jews escape the Nazis. The only place that could confirm or deny an identity was the registry office and the Resistance Council had other plans for it.

On March 27, 1943 the Resistance Council blew up the Amsterdam registry office. Willem had set a firebomb in the office, thus burning and destroying all the records of identities in Amsterdam. Frieda was not allowed to go on this mission because “I was a girl”. Willem was a caught a few days later and killed by the Nazi’s.

Frieda evaded the Gestapo by dressing as a man. She got her haircut short, wore suits and lived as a man for three months, April-June 1943. She was so convincing as a man, that when she passed her own mother on the street, her mother didn’t recognize her.

Frieda and her cousin, Ita Rosenzeig. Photo wikimedia commons and USHMM

 

Fleeing Capture

Frieda knew that the Gestapo would be looking for her, she was a lesbian, she was Jewish and she was in the resistance. She knew that if they caught her, they would surely execute her. She and a male companion fled across the borders, first into Belgium and then into France. Eventually they crossed into Switzerland.

They were captured shortly after they arrived in Switzerland by the Swiss authorities. Her male companion was sent back to the Netherlands as the Swiss were not accepting single men refugees. He remained on Frieda’s conscience for many years, she felt that she could have saved him if she had told the Swiss that they were married. As it was, Frieda was only given refugee status because her former instructor, Henrich Scherchen, was already in Switzerland and he could confirm that she was a Dutch citizen.

Frieda was sent to Montreux to work as a farm laborer until the war ended. During her time there, there were whispers behind her back about her sexuality and the whispers soon became rumor. After the war ended, she was repatriated back the to the Netherlands where she lived until 1947.

 

A New Life

When she returned to the Netherlands, Frieda felt that the people had forgotten those who fought for their freedom from fascist and in 1947 she emigrated to the United States. In 1948 she moved to Laguna Beach, California where she taught cello and conducting at UCLA. In August of 1954 she led an ensemble of Hollywood studio musicians at the Irvine Bowl, that would grow into the Orange County Philharmonic.

In 1999 a documentary on Frieda’s life was produced called But I Was A Girl. Frieda had passed away in 1995 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In the documentary Frieda says “I don’t understand people that can only live for themselves. I can’t understand it. Where do you get your happiness? There must be somebody who needs help. There always is.”

 

Frieda’s life serves as an example to us all of what one person can do to better the lives of those around them. For Frieda it didn’t matter that she was a girl, that she was a lesbian, or that she was part Jewish. What did matter was that when she saw something wrong in the world, she worked to fix it. And that is what we must all do. We must work together to make this a better world for each and everyone of us, not just the ones who look like us, talk like us or think like us, but for EVERYONE.

 

Until next time! I hope that you have been touched by this story and that it inspires you to do better and be better. Please share it via social media, email, print, etc. I will be back soon with another truly amazing story.