Why you should care
Because this gay, anti-fascist resistance fighter was all but forgotten by history, and he’s worth knowing.
One evening in March 1943, a building burst into flames in Amsterdam. By dawn, scattered pieces of paper shone through the charred rafters of the collapsed roof. The papers held Dutch citizens’ names, recorded by the Nazis to keep tabs on the occupied Netherlands.
The bombing of the Public Records Office is a symbol of Dutch resistance to fascism to this day.
The bomb that struck the building destroyed less than a quarter of the Amsterdam Public Records Office’s holdings, but it sent a message that the Nazis wouldn’t forget: We are fighting back. The bombing is a powerful symbol of Dutch resistance to fascism to this day — but the man responsible for it is only starting to receive recognition.
Willem Arondeus was one of the most dedicated and creative organizers of the Dutch Underground. But because he was openly gay, his name was often downplayed in books about wartime resistance.
Born in Amsterdam in 1895 to theater costume-designing parents, Arondeus grew up one of six children. His parents initially encouraged his artistic inclinations — he loved to write and paint — but his sexuality caused friction between them. At 17, Willem refused to hide his homosexuality any longer, and the following year, his parents kicked him out.
Arondeus took odd jobs while continuing to develop his artistic talents. Then opportunity struck with his first major commission — a mural for Rotterdam’s town hall — which helped him gain a reputation as a serious painter. His style — part Picasso, part Rembrandt — blended radical new abstraction with traditional, somber Dutch tones. Some of his work survives and is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As Hitler ascended to power in Germany, Arondeus was enjoying life and a happy relationship — despite financial difficulties. He even published a biography of Dutch painter and political activist Matthijs Maris that sold well enough to keep him and his partner, Jan Tijssen, afloat.
Then the war changed everything.
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, they were keen to keep the Dutch on their side — no immediate deportations, violence or strict curfews. Maybe the Nazis weren’t so bad, some Dutch argued.
He was the great hero who was most willing to give his life for the cause.
But minorities like Arondeus had no delusions. Same-sex relations had been legal in the Netherlands for over a century, but the new government wasted no time in recriminalizing homosexuality. Inspired by Maris, the activist he’d written about who fought for democracy in the 1871 Paris Commune uprising, Arondeus was among the first to join the Dutch resistance.
His skills as an artist were quickly put to good use. Arondeus joined a group that forged identity papers — precious commodities in any fascist-controlled state. As the Nazis started cracking down on Amsterdam’s Jewish population, his organization focused on providing Dutch Jews with fake identities. He also worked tirelessly to publish anti-Nazi information and recruit people in the community to join the resistance.
In 1943, it became clear to Arondeus that time was running out for both Dutch Jews and others on the Gestapo’s watch lists. So he devised a plan to do away with those lists altogether.
The records office held information on hundreds of thousands of Dutch people, including Jews, and the Nazis used this catalog to check fake identities. The best way to interrupt the flow of information, Arondeus decided, was to blow it up.
He wanted the world to know: ‘Homosexuals are not cowards.’
He and a group of resistance fighters — some of them also openly gay, including conductor and classical cellist Frieda Belinfante, tailor Sjoerd Bakker and writer Johan Brouwer — carefully planned the attack.
On March 27, 1943, dressed as a German Army captain, Arondeus marched 15 men up to the Public Records Office. They disabled the guards by drugging them, positioned the explosives and made Dutch history.
The group’s success, however, was short-lived. Within a few days, the Gestapo had captured all the resistance fighters involved in the bombing; an anonymous traitor within the organization had turned them all in.
At his sham trial, Arondeus took full responsibility for the bombing. Tragically, this didn’t stop the Nazis from executing 13 of the saboteurs — including Arondeus — by firing squad, while the others managed to flee the country.
Defiant to the end, Arondeus communicated his final words through his lawyer. His message? “Homosexuals are not cowards.”
As a resistance organizer, Arondeus was an inspiration to his colleagues and may have helped hundreds of Jews escape deportation. Nevertheless, his legacy has been largely overlooked in the Netherlands.
His family received a medal from the Dutch government commemorating his bravery in the 1980s, but despite his final message of defiance, his sexuality was omitted from history books until the 1990s.
Belinfante, the cellist and lesbian who helped plan the bombing and suffered similar neglect of her war legacy, recalled how another member of the resistance — a heterosexual male — was credited with leading the group and bombing for years.
“[Arondeus] was the great hero who was most willing to give his life for the cause,” she said, setting the record straight.