Audrey Hepburn. The name alone conjures up images of elegance and the romance of old Hollywood. Being one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award there is no question why Audrey is so tied to the golden age of American Cinema.
But before she was a world famous actress Audrey lived another, altogether quite different life providing support for the Dutch resistance during The Second World War.
In 1939, when Audrey was just 10 years old, Britain declared war on Germany and soon Hepburn and her mother were fleeing to the Netherlands from their native Belgium. Hoping that this war would play out like the Great War before it, where the Dutch managed to maintain their neutrality, Audrey and her mother set up shop in Arnhem. This plan to avoid the war would unfortunately fall apart, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands less than a year later.
By all accounts, this occupation was brutal. Audrey herself said that “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves”, going on to say that the only thing that kept them motivated was the belief that the war was constantly just a few weeks from ending.
Audrey’s family, being privileged Dutch aristocrats were not spared from Nazi cruelty; her half brother was be deported to a Berlin work camp and in 1942 her uncle would be assassinated by the Germans for his support of the nascent resistance movement. This would prove to be a pivotal moment for Audrey and her mother, and both fought desperately against giving in to nihilism, leading them to take up their uncles cause and support the resistance from that moment on.
This was a surprising change of heart for Audrey’s mother especially, who had previously openly supported fascism; she wrote columns in support of Mosley’s Union of Fascists in paper “The Black Shirt”, joined the far right movement and even personally met with Hitler. This was all done alongside Audrey’s father, who had abandoned the family years before the war. He had also been an avid supporter of the far right ideology, but for him there would be no redemption or renunciation. He spent the entire war in prison for his support of the Third Reich.
Audrey eventually fell in with Dr. Visser ’t Hooft, a charismatic and intelligent leader of the local resistance. Taking the young rebel under his wing, he later described her as his star pupil. It was under the doctor’s encouragement and urging that Audrey, who had studied ballet in England, would have her strange entrance into the performing arts. In an attempt to raise morale and funds for the resistance, Audrey set up the “Black Evenings”, secret dance shows and charity evenings. These were highly illegal and if caught, the audience, performers and organisers would all likely be facing down a Nazi rifle squad. To hide the events they were often performed in basements, with blacked out windows, thus the name, and audiences weren’t allowed to cheer or clap. Audrey said later in life say “the best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance”.
This is an image that stuck with me after reading on the subject: a young girl with barely enough food in her belly to keep the pangs of hunger away, dancing her heart out to a silent audience, hidden away from the prying eyes of the evil occupying force. A young girl that, during peacetime, should have been in school instead literally pushed onto centre stage through grief and loss to put on performances in an attempt to keep the flicker of hope alive.
These funds were sorely needed by the resistance, who had been carrying out various anti German acts, one of the most famous being the bombing of a public records office by Willem Arondeus, who hoped to protect Dutch Jews by making it much harder for the Nazis to track them down. Among their other activities was an underground railroad for escaping Dutch Jews, dissidents and captured allied airmen. Audrey would play a part here too; the resistance made use of young members to pass around messages and supplies as children and teenagers could get around without provoking the notice of the occupiers. In 1944, Audrey- playing the part of messenger for the resistance- supplied food to downed airmen hiding in the Dutch woods under cover of night.
In that same year, Nazis would subject the Netherlands to their worst cruelty yet: aiming to punish the Dutch for helping the allies, the Germans cut off food supplies to the already impoverished and starving country. The Dutch Winter of Hunger had begun. Starvation swept the nation and millions were affected, Audrey among them. At this time she was just a teenager and the lack of food severely affected her development throughout the rest of her life. The young girl who danced for silent audiences would never grow up to be the ballerina she had dreamed of being when she had started to dance all those years ago in England.
As we know, Audrey still found success, albeit as an actress instead of a dancer. Her acting career brought her the chance to meet a fellow survivor of the occupation, Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank. Otto met with Audrey hoping to convince her to play Anne in a film about the Dutch girl’s life. He had been inspired by the role Audrey had played during those long years of struggle, although ultimately Audrey turned down the offer. She said she had felt connected to the young girl after reading her diaries, saying that “it’s a little bit as if this had happened to my sister”. She wouldn’t be able to give Anne the performance she deserved, feeling she would be overcome with grief.
Outside of her incredible acting career, Audrey became a UNICEF ambassador, travelling the world even as she suffered from cancer. Peace was important to her, in the way that it often is for survivors of war.
On the evening of 20 January 1993, in her home in Switzerland, Audrey Hepburn passed away peacefully in her sleep.
I find it strange, especially so after researching more on the topic of her life, that Audrey Hepburn- so emblematic of the glamour of the movies- inspires me more by the story of her own life than by any story she starred in on the silver screen. Audrey is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest actors to have ever lived, but I think we should also remember her as the young girl, who refused to give into fear, dancing to a silent audience.