How Hollywood idol Audrey Hepburn helped save Dutch Jews during the Holocaust

Veteran star chronicler Robert Matzen traces Hepburn’s roots in the Netherlands, her mother’s fleeting Nazi sympathies, and her covert activities against the occupying Nazi regime

Audrey Hepburn starred in a constellation of memorable roles, from Manhattan socialite Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” The 1953 classic “Roman Holiday” — in which she portrayed Princess Ann, a royal exploring the Eternal City with Gregory Peck — earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. And Hepburn is among the select few to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.

Yet her most important role is perhaps her least-known. It’s the story of a Dutch aristocrat, raised by parents with controversial political allegiances, who aided her country’s resistance to the Nazis while enduring tragedy and starvation — and, despite it all, becoming a prima ballerina en route to Hollywood stardom. It’s her real-life coming-of-age story, told in a new book, “Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” by Robert Matzen.

“Dutch Girl” is based on Matzen’s visits to the Netherlands, where he accessed hard-to-get information in archives, and interviewed people with wartime memories of Hepburn, gaining a new understanding of the star’s own statements about her wartime past. Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti wrote the foreword, and shared previously-unseen photographs, documents and mementos.

A veteran Hollywood chronicler, Matzen learned about Hepburn’s war years while researching his previous book, a biography of Jimmy Stewart, who had been a WWII fighter pilot before becoming the all-American star of such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Some of Stewart’s men had been shot down over the Netherlands, and when Matzen visited the city of Arnhem, he learned Hepburn had lived there during the war. That sparked his next project, one that would bring to light Hepburn’s war experiences, which he called in an interview with The Times of Israel, “a side of Audrey that nobody knows.”

Audrey Hepburn, right, shown with Fred Zinneman and Rosalind Russell, left, in this April 10, 1967 photo taken at the 1967 Academy Award presentations. (AP Photo/ File)

According to the book, there were aspects of Hepburn’s early life that she wished to forget. Her Dutch mother, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra, met Hitler in the 1930s and wrote admiringly about him in British fascist publications — but changed her mind during the brutal Nazi occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945. (By contrast, the continuing Nazi sympathies of van Heemstra’s English ex-husband, Hepburn’s father Joseph Ruston, kept him jailed throughout the war.)Audrey Hepburn’s mother Ella, Baroness van Heemstra, in the early 1930s. (Dotti Collection)

The baroness aided the Dutch Resistance after the Nazis executed Hepburn’s beloved uncle, Otto Ernst Gelder, Count van Limburg Stirum. Hepburn’s grief was so deep that she never mentioned her uncle by name afterward, Matzen said.

Hepburn also was affected by the larger tragedies that befell her nation, and she displayed heroism on behalf of individuals in danger. Volunteering for the resistance, she aided Jews in hiding, raising funds through dancing to keep them safe.

Despite these and others’ efforts, less than 25 percent of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Invited in 1958 to play the role of the most famous Dutch Holocaust victim in the film version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Hepburn found the subject too close to home and turned it down, although she met with Frank’s Holocaust survivor father, Otto Frank. According to the book, she also declined the role out of fears over what might happen if Ella’s past was plumbed.

Another trauma Hepburn did not wish to relive was the 1944 Allied defeat in the battles of Arnhem and Oosterbeek. After the execution of her uncle two years earlier, she and her mother had relocated from Arnhem to the village of Velp three miles away — close enough to hear the destruction of Hepburn’s former hometown.

Her family members risked their lives sheltering a British soldier, and she and her mother assisted as nurses. Nazi reprisals included rounding up Dutch women and girls to work in German kitchens; Hepburn was among those rounded up for what could have been a grim fate, but she escaped. Decades later, in 1976, she declined a role in the cinematic retelling of the battles, “A Bridge Too Far.”In 1957, the stress of a day in Switzerland with Elfriede and Otto Frank is visible on Audrey Hepburn’s face. He had asked her to portray his daughter Anne Frank in an upcoming film; she will tell him that, for a variety of reasons, she can’t. (Eva Schloss, photographer; Anne Frank House)

Matzen sees his book as not only filling a gap in knowledge about Hepburn’s war years, but also explaining how they had a lifelong effect on her, including her work as a UNICEF ambassador who aided children affected by war.

He connects her suffering in the Dutch “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945 with later health issues (she died an early death at age 63). Yet, he says, the overall message of the book is an inspiring story, one that he partly credits for it achieving bestseller status two weeks before it was released on April 15, less than a month prior to what would have been Hepburn’s 90th birthday.

The person behind the star

Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston on May 4, 1929. Her family had aristocratic connections on both sides. Her Dutch grandfather, the Baron van Heemstra, was a former governor of the South American colony of Suriname, and a former mayor of Arnhem. Her English father claimed a royal pedigree through his 16th-century ancestor, James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Young Audrey, or Adriaantje, as she was known to her family, grew up shuttling between Belgium, England and the Netherlands. Her parents visited Germany with prominent British fascists (including Sir Oswald Mosley) and met Hitler at his Munich headquarters in 1935. Ella returned to Germany for the Nazi Party Congress later that year and praised Hitler in British fascist publications. The book states that Hepburn herself was never pro-German.Five-year-old Audrey Hepburn poses with her aunt Meisje and uncle Otto during an extended 1935 stay in Oosterbeek while her parents met with Hitler. (Dotti Collection)

While Matzen’s low opinion of Ruston remained constant (he did not stay in contact with his daughter after he and Ella divorced), his views on Ella changed.

“When I got into the project, I thought of her as an evil character,” Matzen said. “I was afraid I was not going to understand her.”

However, input from Dotti about his grandmother softened the author’s opinion.

“If she were alive today, she would be like a goth, an artist wearing black,” Matzen said. “She rebelled against her parents, more than anything, any authority figure who told her to act a certain way. She had an inclination to act differently. You can see the shock value in her embrace of Adolf Hitler.”

Ella initially continued supporting the Nazis after they occupied the Netherlands. She developed a romance with a German official, and planned and performed in an evening of German-approved music in Arnhem in late 1941, in which her daughter and son Ian also performed. Ironically, Hepburn’s ballet teacher, Winja Marova, was Jewish and hid her identity from the occupiers.

Matzen calls Ella’s support of the Nazis during this period a path of least resistance that protected her children. Yet her other son Alex became an onderduiker, a member of the resistance who went into hiding. And the Nazis arrested her brother-in-law, Hepburn’s uncle Otto, a court prosecutor, for disobeying their policies. On August 15, 1942, he was executed in a mass killing with another relative, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.

Robert Matzen, author of ‘Dutch Girl,’ signing copies of the book, which quickly sold out, at the BookExpo trade show in New York, May 2019. (Courtesy)

A new chapter begins

Otto’s execution was “a turning point… when the war became real,” Matzen said, calling him “such an optimistic and positive force in the family. He did not believe til the last morning of his life that anything bad was going to happen to him. When it did, it shook the family to the core.”

Ella and Audrey relocated to Velp, where they lived with Audrey’s grandfather, the Baron van Heemstra, and Otto’s widow, Meisje.Near the end of her stay in Elham, Audrey Hepburn (fourth from left) waves the Union Jack. (Dotti Collection)

“The family bonded together and joined the resistance,” Matzen said. “They did everything they could against the occupation.”

That included refusing an order to join a Nazi artists’ committee, ending Hepburn’s burgeoning dance career, which had made her Arnhem’s most famous ballerina by 1944, Matzen said. Hepburn also assisted a remarkable doctor, Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft, who helped shelter hundreds of Jews in Velp throughout the war.

“He was instrumental,” Matzen said. “He knew where all the Jews were in Velp. Audrey was involved. She knew some of the things he knew. She was one of the ones [bringing] messages to families protecting Jews. She danced [to raise money] for the resistance, money to feed Jews in hiding. Nobody [wrote about] how enmeshed in the Jewish story she was.”Audrey Hepburn sits in the hilly Sonsbeek section of Arnhem in February 1942. (Dotti Collection)

The postwar discovery of Anne Frank’s diary added to this story. In an eerie development, when Hepburn and her mother lived in Amsterdam after liberation, their fellow lodger was the editor working on publishing the diary. Hepburn and Frank were born just weeks apart in 1929 — Frank would have celebrated her 90th birthday on June 12 — and both lived in the Netherlands during the war. But Frank was apprehended in 1944 and died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Hepburn is quoted in the book describing Frank as a soul sister.

“I believe Audrey felt survivor’s guilt,” Matzen said. “She survived. Anne Frank did not.”

Hepburn also survived the Battle of Arnhem, which left her hometown devastated. The battle marks its 75th anniversary this September; Matzen will travel to Arnhem and Oosterbeek, including the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, for the occasion.

In the wake of Allied defeat, hunger and starvation pervaded the Netherlands, accompanied by explosions from Hitler’s last-ditch weapons, the V-1 and V-2 rockets, all of which the book conveys in excruciating detail.

Liberation brought its own complications. Hepburn became fond of the cigars carried by Allied soldiers and developed erratic eating habits worsened by the rigors of ballet, according to Matzen. The newly-restored Dutch authorities began punishing collaborators and summoned Ella for interrogation; they cleared her after an evaluation, after which mother and daughter eventually left for England, where Hepburn found success not through ballet, but film.Audrey Hepburn strums a guitar with her costar George Peppard between takes on the set of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ at a film studio in Hollywood on December 7, 1960. (AP Photo)

Hepburn ultimately came to terms with her past. Years after becoming a household name, she took part in public readings of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and served as a UNICEF ambassador, including in war-torn Somalia shortly before her death.

“She had always been affected by children suffering in wars started by adults,” Matzen explained. It is part of the book’s powerful message.

As Matzen said, “here is a woman who, as a girl, experienced horrible things, and channeled them into beauty and positivity, spreading messages of peace and survival.”

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