Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying the Nazis

Stephen FryStephen Fry
Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying the Nazis (Channel 4, 9pm)

Stephen Fry is something of a renaissance man – he’s an actor, writer, presenter of panel shows, and recently he’s been delving into history.

On Sunday nights, he’s been hosting Dinosaur with Stephen Fry on Channel 5, which has seen him travel back in time to come face to face with computer-generated prehistoric beasts, while also talking to flesh-and-blood experts about the creatures’ behaviour.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Now, in Stephen Fry: Willem & Frieda – Defying the Nazis he’s going back to the 20th century to learn more about a truly remarkable story.

The Willem and Frieda of the title are painter Willem Arondeus and cellist Frieda Belinfante, who lived openly gay lives in the Netherlands at a time when that would be enough to make them pioneers.

When the Nazis occupied their country during the Second World War, the pair found a new outlet for their artistic talents – forging identity papers for Jews. Their handiwork helped to save countless lives, but it came at a great risk.

The Dutch had one of the most advanced identity card systems in the world, and the Nazis had added an extra safeguard against forgery – every card they issued came with a duplicate that was stored at the Amsterdam Central Records Office.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

When the Nazis began checking the fakes against the real files, Willem realised he needed to take action. With the help of a ragtag bunch of artists, he led a raid to blow up the Central Records Office and destroy the duplicate cards.

It was one of the most daring and far-reaching acts of sabotage in the history of the Dutch resistance, but it came with a proviso. Willem insisted that no one should be hurt in the blast as ‘we are not like them’.

It sounds like Willem and Frieda’s story should have been turned into a Hollywood film by now, so it’s surprising that their names aren’t better known. In fact, it seems it was even new to Fry, who must be one of the most well-informed people on TV.

He says: “I confess that, before Rik Carmichael and John Hay sent me the fruits of their amazing research, I had never heard of Willem Arondeus or Frieda Belinfante — a pair whom I now regard as being authentic and remarkable heroes. Living their lives as openly gay in the 1930s was remarkable enough, but once the Nazi’s invaded their homeland of the Netherlands, they found in themselves a depth of courage and determination that is, across the years, still inspiring.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He adds: “It’s a question we often ask ourselves – how would I respond to the occupation of my country? Would I fight for freedom or duck down and keep out of trouble? I think the world needs to be reminded of Willem and Frieda, ordinary people who found extraordinary inner resources…”

So, in this documentary, Stephen makes an emotional journey to Amsterdam to learn more about the artists and Jewish activists involved in this act of bravery, to find out what happened next, and to ask why their story has remained largely hidden.