These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names

Khalid Elhassan - August 15, 2022

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
Hannie Schaft in German custody, shortly before her execution. Wikimedia

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.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
The Oversteegen sisters. Dagospia

4. Life After the Resistance

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.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
The Oversteegen sisters, Freddie and Truus, in old age. Netherlands Ministry of Defense

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.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday’. Pinterest

3. Antifascist Women Fought in a Variety of Ways

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.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
A Dutch Resistance cell during WWII. For God and Country

2. A Future Star’s Path to the Resistance

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.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
A young Audrey Hepburn. Vintage Every Day

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.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
Audrey Hepburn. Belatina

1. Fighting the Fascists Through Dance

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“.

These World War II Heroines Should be Household Names
Audrey Hepburn during a UNICEF mission. Manual Geek

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Accidental Talmudist – Girl With a Gun: Simone Segouin

All That is Interesting – Zinaida Portnova: The Teenage Partisan Who Became a Soviet Hero During World War II

Cracked – ‘The Limping Lady’ Was WWII’s Most Underrated Heroine

Daily Mail, August 29th, 2015 – The Hotpants Hotshot: Formidable Derring-do of the Nazi Hunting, Gun Toting Pin Up Teen of the French Resistance

Encyclopedia Britannica – Josephine Baker

Forward – True History of an Unknown Hero of the French Jewish Resistance

Greif, Gideon – We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando From Auschwitz (2005)

History – This Teenager Nazis With Her Sister During WWII

History Collection – Dangerous Women That the Law Couldn’t Contain

History Network – Josephine Baker’s Daring Double Life as a World War II Spy

Imperial War Museums – Five Film Stars’ Wartime Roles

Jewish Virtual Library – The Revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Jones, Sherry – Josephine Baker’s Last Dance (2018)

Life Magazine, September 4th, 1944 – The Girl Partisan of Chartres

National Archives – Virginia Hall of the OSS, May 12, 1945

National Public Radio – ‘A Woman of No Importance’ Finally Gets Her Due

OMG Facts – The Sisters Who Fought Nazis by Seducing Them

Paris, Barry – Audrey Hepburn (1996)

Poldermans, Sophie – Seducing and Ki*ling Nazis: Hannie, Truus and Freddie: Dutch Resistance Heroines of WWII (2019)

Purnell, Sonia – A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped America Win World War II (2019)

Rees, Laurence – Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution (2004)

Sakaida, Henry – Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45 (2012)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 8th, 2019 – How a Spy Known as ‘The Limping Lady’ Helped the Allies Win WWII

Time Magazine, May 3rd, 2019 – How a Young Audrey Hepburn Helped the Dutch Resistance During World War II

Vice, May 11th, 2016 – This 90 Year Old Lady Seduced and Ki*led Nazis as a Teenager

Washington Jewish Week – Charlotte Sorkine: Unknown Hero of the French Resistance

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – Prisoner Revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau

US Army Online – Miss Virginia Hall

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