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