audrey hepburn and the nazis -- 5/22/17

Today's selection -- from Audrey Hepburn: A Charmed Life by Robyn Karney. Edda Van Heemstra, who changed her name to Audrey Hepburn and went on to become one of Hollywood's greatest movie stars, was 10 years old and living in Holland when the Nazis invaded. She was from a very well-to-do family and was attending private school in London when her mother, fearing a Nazi invasion of England, had her sent back to Holland for her safety. It was a life-changing mistake:

"At the time [of the Nazi invasion, Audrey's mother] Baroness Van Heemstra dedicated her energies to working for the Resistance, and her daughter was enlisted to help in the carrying of messages, hidden in the soles of her shoes. ... The Van Heemstras moved into a house at the edge of town, more convenient, much smaller, but inadequately equipped. As the war ground on, Audrey's schooling became sporadic, until she left the Arnhem Day School altogether and continued her lessons with a tutor. Her journeys to and from his house on the other side of town provided cover for her regular errands for the Resistance.

13 years old

"Each day brought fresh difficulties. Audrey's uncle and a cousin were arrested as enemies of the Reich and subsequently executed; then her elder brother, having refused to join the Netherlands Institute for Folkish Education (a euphemistic designation for the Nazi Youth organisation), was sent to a labour camp in Germany for the remainder of the war. These were devastating blows for the Van Heemstras, whose struggle to survive was further increased when, in 1942, the Baroness was stripped of her assets. The family properties were confiscated and her bank accounts sequestered, leaving her to support her family on a meagre allowance 'given' to her by the German authorities.

"For Audrey there were none of the pleasures or pangs of a normal adolescence, no parties, no picnics, no teenage romances. ... Scarcity of food had become a severe problem in Holland and even the already inadequate diet of watery soup with a little bread was in short supply. At one stage Audrey lived for a whole month on endives -- she never ate an endive again -- and, during the spring, she and her brother Ian found sustenance in tulip bulbs dug from the fields. Many people ate cooked grass, something that she could never bring herself to do. ... Even her extraordinary determination was insufficient to overcome the frailty of her malnourished body. She witnessed many appalling events. Accustomed from early in the Occupation to the sight of Jews of all ages forced to wear the yellow Star of David, she now saw them rounded up for their deportation to the death camps. The memory of these scenes never left her. ...

"The final nine months of the war were the most grueling of all for the now fifteen-year-old Audrey. On 17 September 1944, immediately after the German collapse in Normandy, the First British Airborne Division was parachuted into Holland to undertake Operation Market Garden. ... [But] disaster ... brought the fighting into the city, whose inhabitants became the victims of the Battle of Arnhem. Great swathes of Arnhem were laid waste, while its beleaguered citizens crammed themselves into cellars along with wounded and dying British soldiers, whom they tended as best they could. ...

"[Soon an evacuation was ordered and] 100,000 people, bearing babies and bundles and wheeling bicycles in the sad tradition of refugees, streamed out of the city. Ella Van Heemstra, her daughter Audrey and her younger son, Ian, were among them. Three thousand died en route. ... The Van Heemstras were fortunate in finding accommodation very quickly in a large, rambling house in the country. They were not alone, however: more than two hundred refugees shared the same premises, struggling together for survival. Audrey lived in these worsening conditions for some months until word of the Allied advance began to filter through. ...

"[When she was in town, Germans tried to force Audrey into a work group, but] in a flash of quick thinking and reckless bravery, Audrey fled, and hid herself in the nearest abandoned cellar. Cold and hungry, she passed her days in darkness and isolation, growing ill and weak. Incredibly, she stayed in hiding for more than three weeks, emerging shaken and suffering from hepatitis. ... On 5 May 1945, the day after her birthday, Holland was liberated. The sixteen-year-old girl was now five foot seven inches tall. She suffered from malnutrition, her ankles were swollen with oedema, and she weighed just ninety pounds."




Robyn Karney


Audrey Hepburn: A Charmed Life


Arcade Publishing


Copyright 1993, 2012 by Robyn Karney


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