The art of resistance

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A calendar design by Arondeus which reads ‘The bread of the future will be won through struggle’

Gay activists played an important role in anti-fascist resistance. Noel Halifax tells the little-known story of the artist and writer turned freedom fighter Willem Arondeus, who was executed by the Nazis in the Netherlands 75 years ago.

Willem Arondeus was born in 1895, the son of theatre designers, and grew up in Amsterdam one of six children. At an early age he showed an interest in art and writing, which his parents encouraged, and in homosexuality, which his parents did not.

At the age of 17 he came out fully and refused to hide his sexuality. At the time homosexuality was legal in the Netherlands; nonetheless when he was 18 his parents kicked him out to fend for himself. He survived, but in impoverished conditions, continuing his interest in painting and writing.

His breakthrough came with a commission to paint a mural for Rotterdam Town Hall. His style was a modernist interpretation of the classical Dutch tradition — part Picasso, part Rembrandt. As well as finding success as a painter he also established himself as a writer both of novels and biographies from 1938 onwards.

His most famous work was a biography of the Dutch painter Matthijs Maris, who had taken part in the Paris Commune of 1871. By the late 1920s Arondeus was settled with his partner Jan Tijsson and had become an established artist and writer.

But the rise of the Nazis loomed on the borders, and a local fascist party in the Netherlands, the National Socialist Movement (NSB), won senators as well as carrying out violent attacks on the left and Jews. The NSB’s electoral highpoint was in 1935, when it gained 8 percent of the vote and two senators; after strong opposition this declined to 4 percent by 1937. When the German Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940 they outlawed all political parties except the NSB. They also outlawed homosexuality and started to impose laws against the Jews.

Some in the Dutch establishment said just keep calm and carry on, believing the Germans would rule with a liberal hand and not impose the same laws as they had in Germany. Arondeus, on the other hand, was fervently opposed to the Nazis from the beginning and urged his fellow artists to resist and oppose them. He was one of the first to join the Dutch Resistance, using his artistic talents to forge identity papers for Jews.

In the spring of 1941 he founded a publication aimed at rousing fellow artists to resist. He realised before almost anyone else that the Nazis’ policy of getting all Jews to register with local authorities was not for their safety, as they claimed, but so they could more easily be deported to concentration camps. He urged all artists to hide Jews and help forge papers.

In 1942 he founded the magazine Branderisbrief, which opposed the Nazis’ edicts on culture and called on all artists to resist. In 1943 this merged with another underground publication, De Vrije Kunstenaar (the free artist), which was led by the sculptor Gerrit van der Veen and other intellectuals. Together they urged mass resistance against the German occupation.

But Arondeus did not think these calls were enough. Physical resistance was possible and needed if the various resistance groups were to prevent the destruction of the Jews and send a clear message to everyone.

He founded a small group which was prepared to take more direct action — and the situation was becoming urgent. The Nazis were systematically comparing the ID papers with the local population registry kept by the local councils, and were beginning to identify the forged papers that had been made to protect Jewish citizens.

Arondeus decided the best plan was to blow up the Amsterdam Public Record Office so the Nazis could no longer compare the papers. For this task he put together a small band that included a high proportion of fellow gays (the tailor Sjoerd Bakker, the writer Johan Brouwer) and his best friend, the out lesbian Frieda Belinfante, a well-known cellist and conductor.

On the evening of 27 March 1943 they blew up and destroyed a quarter of the Amsterdam records, hindering the work of the Nazis to detect forged ID papers and deport Jews.

It is still unknown how, but the Gestapo found out the names of the group almost immediately and arrested them. Twelve of the group were executed, including Arondeus himself.

After the sentence was announced he told his lawyer, “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”