10. Despite Their Poverty, These Sisters’ Family Harbored and Sheltered Fugitives from Nazi Oppression
By the time the Dutch felt the heavy hand of the German occupiers, the Oversteegen sisters’ parents had divorced. Their father was an activist committed to political causes, but not committed as much to family obligations. He hardly brought in any money, and had the family living on a moored ship. His wife eventually got fed up, left, took the girls with her, and filed for divorce. As Freddie recalled decades later, it was not an acrimonious divorce, and her father sang them a French farewell song from the bow of the ship as they left.
The mother arranged to live in a modest apartment, in which she and her daughters slept on straw mattresses that she had made herself. The family lived in straitened financial conditions, exacerbated even further by the hardships and shortages of wartime and of life under German occupation. However, they managed to get by. Their mother also continued the family’s tradition of harboring fugitives from oppression, and hid a Jewish couple in their apartment during the war. As Freddie recalled years later, that confused her at first: the Jewish couple were capitalists, while the Oversteegens were committed communists.
It was against the above backdrop that the Dutch Resistance approached Truus and Freddie Oversteegen’s mother. They asked if she would allow her daughters to join the Council of Resistance – a resistance organization that had close ties to the Communist Party of the Netherlands. After all, who would suspect a pair of teenage girls of membership in the armed underground? Their mother consented, and the sisters eagerly accepted the invitation and joined the antifascist fight. They became the first women in their cell, which was later joined by an even more famous Dutch Resistance heroine, Hannie Schaft.
When they joined the Dutch Resistance, the teenaged Truus and Freddie Oversteegen started off small. They distributed leaflets and illegal newspapers, and offered assistance to fugitives from the Nazi. However, things changed in the aftermath of the brutal Nazi crackdown in 1941, in retaliation for the massive Dutch workers’ strike to protest the deportation of Jews. German brutality further radicalized Truus, and spurred her and her sister to join an armed fighter cell that engaged in direct resistance action against the Nazis.
After she received some military training and learned how to operate a firearm, Truus Oversteegen’s early Resistance assignments included flirting with and seducing German soldiers. She would then lead them into the woods, where they would be ended by her comrades. As Freddie described it decades later: “[Truus] was like: ‘Want to go for a stroll?’ And of course he wanted to. Then they ran into someone — which was made to seem a coincidence, but he was one of ours — and that friend said to Truus: ‘Girl, you know you’re not supposed to be here.’ They apologised, turned around, and walked away. And then shots were fired, so that man never knew what hit him.
They had already dug the hole, but we weren’t allowed to be there for that part“. Before long, Truus had begun to put her weapons training to good use, and shot Germans herself. Along with her sister, she also rigged up bridges and railroad tracks with explosives for destruction. The Oversteegen girls also helped smuggle Jewish children out of the country. They carried out hazardous missions to help some of them escape from detention centres en route to extermination centres, and even sprang some from concentration camps.
In 1943, a new member was added to the Oversteegen sisters’ resistance cell: Hannie Schaft. A conscientious young woman with conspicuous red hair, Hannie wanted to become a human rights lawyer, and attended the University of Amsterdam’s law school. Unfortunately, Nazi occupied Europe was not a good environment for the study or practice of human rights law. In law school, she became friends with Jewish students, which opened her eyes to the mistreatment of Jews by the occupiers. When the authorities issued a decree that required students to sign a declaration of allegiance to the German occupation, Hannie refused, and was kicked out of law school. She promptly joined the resistance.
Like the Oversteegen sisters, with whom she became fast friends – particularly Truus – Hannie began her underground career with small assignments. At first, she was given courier work, and was tasked with stealing identity papers to help Jews – including her Jewish friends – escape the ever-tightening Nazi noose. However, she wanted to do heavier work, and convinced the Resistance Council to train her in weapons. Before long, with the assistance of the Oversteegen sisters, she had begun to carry out attacks against German occupiers, Dutch Nazis, traitors, and collaborators.
Hannie Schaft also learned how to speak German fluently, got involved with German officials and soldiers, seduced information out of them, and passed it on to the resistance. Her conscientiousness, however, prevented her from unquestioning obedience and the acceptance of all tasks given her by the resistance. Among the assignments she turned down was the kidnapping of a Nazi official’s children. If things went wrong, the children would have had to be ended to keep them from identifying the resistance members with whom they had come in contact. The execution of children was a step too far for Hannie.
Life as armed partisans was a difficult row to hoe for resistance fighters, full of dangers and marked by tragedy as often as success. Early on, Truus Oversteegen, who had undertaken numerous missions to help Jews escape the Nazis’ clutches, was present at a failed rescue mission of Jewish children. It ended with the fugitives caught in searchlights in an open field, where most were mown down with machineguns. By the time the war was over, many of her resistance comrades had been arrested and executed.
5. A Nazi All-Points-Bulletin for “The Girl With the Red Hair“
Truus Oversteegen’s best friend, Hannie Schaft, was among the teenaged resistance heroine’s comrades who were arrested and exectud by the Nazis. When the redheaded Hannie was spotted at the site of an assassination, the Germans issued an all-points bulletin that alerted their forces and security personnel to be on the lookout for “the girl with the red hair“. She was placed on the Nazis’ most wanted list. Hannie dyed her hair black to hide her identity, and continued her resistance work, until she was arrested at a checkpoint with illegal newspapers on her. After a series of brutal interrogations and tortures, she was executed on April 17th, 1945, just a few weeks before the end of WWII in Europe.
Reportedly, Schaft’s killers’ first fusillade only wounded her, so she taunted them “I shoot better than you“, before they managed to finish her off. Suspicion was rife that Truus’ and other left wing cells they had been deliberately betrayed by right wing members of the resistance. Dutch conservatives had been backwards in the actual fight against the Nazis, but came forward at the hour of liberation to claim the lion’s share of the credit. Despite the setbacks and daily dangers, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen courageously soldiered on and kept up the fight, and evaded capture despite sizeable rewards that were placed on their heads.
After the war, Truus Oversteegen put down her arms, settled down, and raised a family. She married Piet Menger in November, 1945, and the couple had four children. She named the oldest after her martyred comrade, Hannie Schaft. Truus made a name for herself as a respected artist and sculptress, and as a public speaker about war, anti-Semitism, and tolerance. In 1967, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, designated her as one of the Righteous Among Nations – an honorific for non Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis. In 1982, she wrote a memoir about her wartime experiences. Truus Menger-Oversteegen passed away on June 18th, 2016.
Like Truus, her sister Freddie put down her arms after the war, proceeded to beat swords into ploughshares, settled down and raised a family. She married Jan Dekker, and the couple had three children. When her sister established the Hannie Schaft Foundation in honor of their martyred friend, Freddie served on its board. In recognition of their wartime exploits, the Oversteegen sisters were awarded their country’s Mobilisation War Cross in 2014. Freddie passed away on September 5th, 2018, one day shy of her ninety third birthday.
Not all of WWII’s antifascist women fought back with guns and bombs. Many performed noncombat roles that were, nonetheless, vital to the success of the resistance. One such was British movie star Audrey Hepburn – an icon of both fashion and Classical Hollywood. She was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame, and was ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest female screen legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her rise to international stardom began in 1953 when she appeared alongside Gregory Peck in the romantic comedy Roman Holiday. She became the first actress to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for a single performance.
Less known about Hepburn is that before she rose to fame and fortune, a teenaged Audrey had helped the Dutch Resistance in WWII. She was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in 1929 in Brussels, to a British father and a Dutch aristocratic mother. Her parents eventually divorced, and in 1939, ten-year-old Audrey, her siblings, and her mother, moved to Arnhem, in the Netherlands. When the Nazis invaded and conquered that country in 1940, Audrey found herself under German occupation. As seen below, despite her tender years, she decided to do something about that.
When WWII began in 1939, Audrey Hepburn’s mother moved her family from Belgium to the Netherlands in the hope that, as had happened in WWI, the Dutch would remain neutral. Hepburn was enrolled in a conservatory, where she learned ballet and honed her skills as a ballerina. Unfortunately for Dutch neutrality, the Germans had other ideas, and invaded the Netherlands on May 10th, 1940. The massively outnumbered and overwhelmed Dutch were forced to surrender four days later. Like the rest of the Dutch, Hepburn and her family suffered great privations under Nazi occupation.
In retaliation for sabotage by the resistance, the occupiers executed Audrey’s uncle in 1942, even though he had not been involved. Hepburn’s half-brother was deported to Germany to toil for the Nazis as a slave worker, and another sibling went on the lam from the Germans lest the same happen to him. As Audrey recalled years later: “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week… six months… next year… that’s how we got through“. It was thus understandable that she wanted to do what she could against the Nazis. She had trained as a ballerina and dancer from a young age, and she put those talents to use to help the resistance.
Audrey Hepburn danced and performed in illegal underground recitals known as zwarte avonden (“black evenings”), and donated her earnings to the resistance. This despite her enfeebled physical condition, after the Nazis squeezed the Netherlands hard for resources to fuel their war effort. Within a few years, Audrey, like many other Dutch, began to suffer from malnutrition. She still danced, however. As she put it: “it was some way in which I could make some kind of contribution“. The resistance also put her to work as a child courier, because her youth made her less suspicious in the eyes of German occupiers. She carried documents, coded messages, and other items between various resistance groups. On one occasion, she recalled: “I had to step in and deliver our tiny underground newspaper, I stuffed them in my woollen socks and my wooden shoes, I got on my bike, and delivered them“.
Towards the end of WWII in Europe, a German blockade of food to the Netherlands led to a famine known as the Hunger Winter. Audrey and her family subsisted on miniscule food amounts, including tulip bulbs. By the time the Netherlands were liberated at war’s end, she and her family were close to starvation. As she put it: “We lost everything, of course… but we didn’t give a hoot. We got through with our lives, which was all that mattered“. Soon after the war, she moved to Britain, got her first film role in 1948, and went on to star in dozens more movies. She never forgot her childhood experience in wartime. Audrey Hepburn eventually became a special ambassador for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), an organization dedicated to the provision of humanitarian aid to children worldwide.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading