Born in Belgium, Audrey Hepburn moved to Kent, England with her mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, after her parents' separation in the late 1930s. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Ella relocated with the ten-year-old Audrey to her native Netherlands, setting up residence in the van Heemstra ancestral family home in Arnhem, located about 50 miles southeast of Amsterdam. She believed the country would remain neutral and be spared a German attack, as it had happened during World War I. For the next five years, Audrey attended the Arnhem Conservatory of Music and Dance, where she developed her interest in theatre and trained in ballet.
|Audrey and her mother in Arnhem|
After the Netherlands was incorporated into the Third Reich, the van Heemstras, as every other aristocratic family in each country in Nazi Germany's "growing sphere," was devastated financially. Although they were allowed to remain in their home, the Germans confiscated all their gold and personal jewelry and liquidated their banks accounts. Audrey found solace in music and ballet, which not only continued to motivate her, but which she also used to aid the resistance. Some of the money she earned teaching dancing and piano to younger girls at the conservatory was given to the underground, for which she worked constantly, despite the grave danger. Her hatred for the Nazis and everything they represented gave her enough reason to take the risk.
|Audrey and her brothers in 1938|
The terror that had spread throughout Europe after Germany invaded the Soviety Union in June 1941 was soon felt in Arnhem. That same month, about 700 young Jewish Dutch men were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where they were eventually murdered. Non-Jews did not escape the Nazi brutality either. One day in May 1942, 70 Dutch were executed as a reprisal for alleged crimes against the German occupiers, while hundreds of others were mercilessly slaughtered for helping British pilots who had been shot down over the Netherlands. Audrey's uncle, Otto van Limburg Stirum (husband of her mother's older sister, Miesje), was also executed in 1942 in retaliation for an act of sabotage by the resistance movement.
|Audrey in a dance recital in Arnhem in 1944|
Shortly after D-Day, British general Bernard Montgomery devised a plan called "Operation Market Garden," in which Allied airborne and ground troops would capture eight Dutch bridges, thereby opening a pathway into Germany. A group of 3200 paratroopers were to be dropped behind enemy lines in three Dutch towns, the most important of which was Arnhem. The battle of Arnhem began on September 17, 1944. Some of the Germans who had lost their will to fight surrendered, which prompted celebration in the streets by townspeople, who showered the Allied soldiers with flowers. On the second day of Operation Market Garden, however, many airborne troops were shot down by German artillery and street fighting ensued throughout Arnhem, including on the van Heemstra property in nearby Oosterbeek. German tanks destroyed much of Arnhem, as thousands of Allied soldiers were killed and thousands more captured. In the end, the operation that was supposed to have liberated Arnhem from the Nazis turned out to be a terrible failure.
|Arnhem after the battle|
On May 5, 1945, one day after her 16th birthday, Audrey noticed that the sounds of gunfire and shelling had suddenly stopped. She heard people singing, as the smell of English cigarettes wafted towards her. The family went upstairs, slowly opened the front door and saw British troops surrounding the house. Following five years of German occupation, they had finally been liberated.
Audrey asked the soldiers for chocolate and was handed five bars of it. She devoured them all at once, which made violently ill. Soon, she and millions of others were fed far more nutritionally through the efforts of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), later transformed into the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). The UNRRA placed food, clothing and basic medical supplies in local schools, where Audrey picked out sweaters and skirts that had been shipped from the United States. Three weeks later, Alexander returned home to Arnhem with a pregnant wife, who gave birth to Audrey's nephew that July. Shortly thereafter, Ian also appeared at the front door, having walked most of 325 miles from Berlin to Arnhem.
The hunger and terror Audrey Hepburn experienced during World War II sparked her interest and devotion to humanitarian causes later in her career. As a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF, she dedicated the final years of her life to helping impoverished children in some of the most profoundly disadvantaged communities in Africa, South America and Asia. She visited several orphanages and participated in food, water and immunisation campaigns. In recognition of her extraordinary humanitarian work, she was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. After her untimely death in 1993, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which her son Sean accepted on her behalf.
Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Martin Gitlin (2009) | Enchantment: Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto (2007)