From the VG Bookshelf: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

From the VG Bookshelf: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

From the VG Bookshelf: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

The story of Audrey Hepburn reminded me of my late mother. No, their lives were not the same. Other than the fact that they were both born in the 1920’s, there are few other similarities.

Except my mother never got over her impoverished childhood during the Great Depression, despite the fact that my parents became financially successful. Likewise, Audrey never truly recovered from the greater devastation of World War II, despite her outstanding success.

Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston was born in Brussels, Belgium, in May, 1929, the daughter of Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra and her second husband, British businessman Joseph Ruston. As a young child she lived a privileged life, bouncing around the capitals of Europe. As a result, she also learned five languages. Hers was an elite childhood.

However, that ended in 1938, when her father left the family. Audrey and her mother remained in England until World War II erupted in 1939, whereupon Ella and her daughter moved back to the van Heemstra home in Arnhem, Holland.

You might think that this was going from bad to worse, but not in the mind of Ella van Heemstra. Shockingly, both she and her former husband were members of the British Union of Fascists, and Ella in particular idolized Adolph Hitler. In fact, she had met him, and wrote opinion pieces praising him. Ella also believed like many other Dutch that because Holland had escaped World War I, they would miss this new war as well. Besides, the Dutch were Aryan cousins to the Germans.

That, of course, ended with the invasion of Holland in May, 1940. The nation fell in five days. Ella realized she had been very, very wrong about the Nazis.

Audrey saw how the Germans executed her beloved Uncle Otto, a prominent Arnhem lawyer. She saw how they took one brother to work in labor camps, while another went into hiding. Both she and her mother watched as Jews were whisked away from their homes.

audrey hepburn

Statue of Audrey Hepburn in Arnhem. René Gademann @ flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The van Heemstra family left Arnhem for another home in nearby Velp. But they still couldn’t escape the war.

They endured V1 and V2 rockets. Arnhem was destroyed, causing 90,000 refugees to stream into Velp. Hospitals had shortages of bandages, so used bandages were boiled on stoves for reuse.

And then there was starvation. In the early months of 1945 — the “Hunger Winter” — over 500 Dutch civilians died of malnutrition each week. Audrey herself said:

“I went as long as three days without food, and most of the time we existed on starvation rations. For months, breakfast was hot water and one slice of bread made from brown beans. Broth for lunch was made with one potato, and there was no milk, sugar, cereals, or meat of any kind.”

Audrey also suffered from edema — swelling of the limbs — brought on by starvation. She couldn’t sit because her bottom had shriveled away, and she could never feel warm. Audrey, who stood at five feet, seven inches, had deteriorated to a mere 80 pounds.

But on April 16, liberation came in the form of Canadian First Army troops. The day after they arrived food trucks came from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Slowly the Dutch people recovered.

Audrey Hepburn, as we know, went on to become a talented and beloved actress. But the war scarred her health until her death. She was always hungry, and would binge and diet. She could never again simply eat.

Malnutrition had also affected her ability to have children, even though she desperately wanted them. Audrey had married twice, and gave birth to only one child during each marriage. However, she suffered four miscarriages.

Then there were the psychological scars. In 1952, Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, met with Audrey Hepburn and asked her to play his daughter in the screen adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. But she refused. “I can’t,” she said. Anne Frank, who hid with her family in Amsterdam until the Nazis found them, had been another Dutch girl the same age as Audrey. She said:

“I was so destroyed by it again that I said I couldn’t deal with it. It’s a little bit as if this had happened to my sister. I couldn’t play my sister’s life.”

Audrey Hepburn eventually retired from the movie industry, and used her final years as an ambassador for UNICEF. She traveled from Africa to Asia to South America where children were starving and dying. But her experiences in Somalia in 1992 broke her. Her son Luca Dotti said that “when she came back from the Somalia trip, she was devastated. Totally devastated. Hopeless.”

But her health was also failing her. Abdominal cancer quickly took the life of Audrey Hepburn, who died on January 20, 1993. She was only 63 years old.


Featured image by Darleen Click for Victory Girls.


Written by

Kim is a pint-sized patriot who packs some big contradictions. She is a Baby Boomer who never became a hippie, an active Republican who first registered as a Democrat (okay, it was to help a sorority sister's father in his run for sheriff), and a devout Lutheran who practices yoga. Growing up in small-town Indiana, now living in the Kansas City metro, Kim is a conservative Midwestern gal whose heart is also in the Seattle area, where her eldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. Kim is a working speech pathologist who left school system employment behind to subcontract to an agency, and has never looked back. She describes her conservatism as falling in the mold of Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles. Don't know what they are? Google them!

  • Scott says:

    Thanks for the post Kim. No doubt that our experiences have a lasting impact on us. It seems that this could serve as a cautionary tale for the idiots in our society that are currently advocating for socialism, though i doubt most of them would be smart enough to realize that what happened to Ms. Hepburn and her mother is exactly the fate that awaits them, should they be successful in their goals…

    • GWB says:

      The self-loathing of European nobility post-WW1 created a lot of problems.
      It’s also identical to the self-loathing of our current crop of well-to-do, no-real-problems, well-credentialed elite and wannabe elite (e.g., millennial college graduates).

  • GWB says:

    The day after they arrived food trucks came from the United Nations.
    Huh? The UN didn’t exist until late in 1945.

    She always came across as a decent person. Her death helped create the current deficit of decency in Hollywood.

  • SusanO says:

    When I was a child in the 60s WWII was a major part of our parents’ lives. My parents were children during the war but I had uncles who’d fought in it and friends whose families were impacted by their parent’s suffering. One of my friends mother was a holocaust survivor. The number tattooed on her arm was a constant reminder. My mother had a friend who was the same age as Audrey Hepburn and had also been in Holland during the war. She told us of how they were starving and dug up tulip bulbs to eat. This woman was huge, she told my mother that when she came to America she couldn’t get over the easy availability of food. She ate and ate and ate and could never feel full enough to be satisfied. The terror of starvation never left her.

  • Guy Holladay says:

    But Marilyn Monroe is revered.

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