If there is a hell, the Nazi extermination and concentration camps came as close to it as anything that has ever existed on Earth. In that infernal environment, the Sonderkommando dwelt in their own circle of misery. Compared to other prisoners, they were privileged. However, “privilege” was relative in such horrific settings. Their chief privilege was that they got to live, but it was a short-lived privilege. Every four months or so, the Sonderkommando were executed, and replaced by men from newly-arrived trains of victims marked for the gas chambers. The new Sonderkommando’s first task was to dispose of their predecessors’ corpses.
Next, they disposed of the bodies of those who had arrived on the trains with them, and been sent straight to their deaths in the gas chambers. They often included the corpses of their own families. Auschwitz was a complex of over forty Nazi concentration camps, chief among them the “main camp” or Auschwitz I, and Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were exploited as slave labor, forced to toil in horrific conditions and often worked to death. Most arrivals, however, were sent straight to the gas chambers for extermination as soon as they disembarked from the trains.
Freight trains packed with prisoners arrived at Auschwitz from 1942 to late 1944, where most perished. Of roughly 1,300,00 sent to the camp, about 1,100,000 perished. Most were Jews – of 960,000 Jews who arrived at Auschwitz, 865,000 were gassed on arrival. Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp where the Sondkerkommando toiled, was where most of the atrocities took place. Until they were eventually liquidated, the Sonderkommando were employed in a variety of ghoulish tasks. They had little choice other than do as they were told, or face immediate execution.
The Sonderkommando guided new arrivals to the gas chambers. They removed their bodies afterwards, shaved their hair for use as felt, pulled out their gold teeth, went through their possessions, cremated the corpses, and disposed of the ashes. In the fall of 1944, as the time of their liquidation drew near, the men of Auschwitz’s 12thSonderkommando decided on resistance, rather than go quietly to their deaths. They planned to launch a revolt, destroy the gas chambers, and blow up the crematoria. So they turned to the women of the neighboring camp for help. They found volunteers eager to help with the plan to strike back against the Nazis.
The quartet of Ella Gartner, Regina Safirsztajn, and sisters Ester and Hana Wajcblum, engaged in a nerve-wracking conspiracy in 1944. The went through with it over a period of months, with the ever-present knowledge that if they were discovered, they would be executed. They painstakingly hid small amounts of explosives from the munitions factory in which they toiled. With the help of Roza Robota, who worked in the clothes depot, they smuggled them out with ingenious methods such as false the bottoms of food trays, or secreted them in the nooks of corpses sent for cremation. The explosives made it to the men of the Sonderkommando, who fashioned them into makeshift bombs and grenades. They were stashed away, along with knives, axes, other makeshift weapons, and a few pistols smuggled in by partisans.
The goal was to embark on resistance and launch a revolt in which the death camp’s gas chambers and crematoria would be destroyed, and simultaneously facilitate a mass breakout and escape. On the morning of October 7th, 1944, the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz’s Crematorium IV were warned that orders had been issued for their liquidation. During a roll call that day, a prisoner calmly walked up to a Nazi officer, shouted “Hurrah!“, and hit his head with a hammer. The revolt was on, and in the chaos that followed, the camp’s guards were attacked on all sides by prisoners who wielded knives, hammers, clubs, and threw explosives. One particularly brutal guard was seized and thrown alive into a crematorium.
As Auschwitz guards opened fire with machineguns, some prisoners cut through the barbed wire and fled into nearby woods. It was a brief taste of revenge for those marked for death, who chose to meet their end fighting while taking as many as their oppressors with them as possible. At least three guards perished, and about a dozen were injured. Inevitably, the Nazis rushed in reinforcements, and suppressed the revolt with overwhelming firepower. In a final act of defiance, Crematoria IV’s Sonderkommando retreated into the building and set off their explosives, ending their own lives. The Auschwitz-Birkenau revolt was crushed, and most escapees were exterminated or recaptured. 451 Sonderkommando perished that day: about 250 met their end in the fighting, and another 200 were executed immediately afterwards.
Some were temporarily spared for interrogation, and were tortured into giving up names, including the names of the women who had smuggled the explosives. Roza Robota, Ella Gartner, Ester Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztajn, were seized. They were made of stern stuff. Despite months of beatings, torture, electric shock to their genitals, and rape, they only gave the names of already-dead Sonderkommando. On January 5th, 1945, the four heroines were hanged in front of the camp’s assembled women. Roza Robota went out like a total boss. With the noose around her neck, and just before the trapdoor dropped, she shouted her last words: “Be strong and be brave!”
Zinaida Martynovna Portnova was a teenaged Belorussian partisan who fought the Nazis during WWII. She became the youngest female recipient of a Hero of the Soviet Union award, the USSR’s highest distinction for heroic service to the country and society. Unfortunately, it was a posthumous award, as Zinaida was captured by the Germans and executed in 1944. WWII had came as a rude shock to Zinaida, as it did for most Soviet citizens. Born and raised in Leningrad, fifteen-year-old Zinaida was hundreds of miles from home, at a summer camp near her grandparents’ home close to the Soviet-German border in Belorussia in June of 1941.
When the Nazis invaded, German tanks swept past Zinaida’s summer camp, and the teenager found herself cut off behind enemy lines. Zinaida lived under brutal occupation, and became radicalized when a German soldier struck her grandmother as he confiscated the family’s cattle. She joined the underground Komsomol – the Communist Party’s youth division – and its resistance group, dubbed “The Young Avengers”. At first, Zinaida distributed anti-German propaganda leaflets. She gradually progressed to more serious tasks, and began to collect and hide weapons for the partisans, report on enemy troop movements, and engage in opportunistic acts of sabotage of enemy vehicles.
After she learned the use of weapons and explosives, Zinaida Portnova participated in raids and sabotage operations against power plants, pumps. One such raid targeted a brick factory in the vicinity of Vitebsk, and led to the death of an estimated 100 German soldiers. In 1943, she got a job in a kitchen that served the German garrison of Obol, and poisoned the food. When suspicion fell upon her, she demonstrated her “innocence” by eating the food to prove that it was not poisoned. When she did not exhibit immediate ill effects, she was released. She became violently ill soon thereafter, but survived.
Zinaida fled Obol, joined another partisan unit, and served as its scout. In late 1943, contact was lost with the Obol partisans, and Zinaida was infiltrated back into the city to investigate. She was captured almost immediately. She managed to grab a pistol her German interrogator had carelessly left lying atop his desk and shot him, along with two guards who rushed into the room when they heard the gunshots. She escaped the building, but was eventually tracked down and captured. The teenage partisan was tortured by the Nazis, and executed on January 15th, 1944, aged seventeen.
In August, 1944, Life Magazine correspondent Jack Belden entered the French town of Chartres, where he met a most interesting character: a gun toting teenage girl who stood out from everybody around her. She was Simone Segouin, also known by her nome de guerre, Nicole Minet. Belden ended up doing a story on her that made her a temporary celebrity. Born in 1925 into a poor peasant family near Chartres, about 55 miles from Paris, Simone grew up able to hold her own among men: she was the only girl in her family, among three brothers.
She joined the antifascist fight in 1943, when a local French Resistance leader ended a collaborator in the center of Charters, then went on the lam. As he moved about the countryside, he came in contact with then-seventeen-year-old Simone. Impressed by her poise, he recruited her into the Resistance as a courier. Simone was taught how to operate a submachine gun – a weapon with which she became highly proficient. She was also gradually brought up to speed on the activities of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, a combat alliance of militant communists and French nationalists.
As a courier, Simone Segoun needed a bicycle to get about, but she did not have one. So her first mission as a member of the French Resistance was to steal a bike from the Germans. She pulled it off, and the bicycle was repainted and became her personal reconnaissance vehicle. It allowed her to deliver messages and stake out targets. After she demonstrated that she could handle herself in dangerous situations, Simone was allowed to take part in hazardous combat missions. She began to blow up bridges, derail trains, and put an end to or capture Nazis.
Simone Segouin took out her first German on July 14th, 1944. Around 5AM, she waited in ambush in a roadside ditch, and when two enemy soldiers rode by in bicycles, she opened up with her submachine gun and took out both. She then went on the road, searched the bodies, collected their papers and weapons, then made her way alone through the woods, to deliver the haul to her Resistance hideout. She confessed that she had enjoyed ending the detested occupiers. That did not surprise her comrades in the least.
Simone Segouin was inspired by her father, a decorated soldier who had fought in WWI, and grew up intensely patriotic. When first recruited into the Resistance, she was asked if she felt queasy about eliminating Germans, and she replied: “No. It would please me to kill Boche“. As she put it decades later, it was simple: “The Germans were our enemies – we were French“. She was with the Resistance fighters of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisanswhen they helped liberate Charters on August 23rd, 1944. She helped capture 25 Germans, and shepherded them to POW pens.
Simone and her comrades then linked up with the French 2nd Armored Division as it headed out to liberate Paris. She was in the thick of the fighting that freed the French capital on August 25th. For her performance, Simone was promoted to lieutenant, and awarded a Croix de Guerre. After the war, she became a pediatric nurse, and in 2017, a street in Courville-sur-Eure, a small town near Charters in which she now lives, was named in her honor.
17. The American Superstar Who Joined the French Resistance
Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975) is not usually associated with the antifascist resistance, but she was neck deep in it during WWII. A talented performer, racism in her native US put a cap on her career prospects. So she emigrated to France, where she became a global superstar. Baker took the City of Light by storm, as she remade herself into a glamorous Jazz Age cabaret star. Her signature stage act was quite risque, performed while clad only in high heels, a skirt made of artificial bananas, and a bra that revealed far more than it concealed. She sang and danced with a wild abandon and erotic frenzy that held the audience spellbound. Baker was often accompanied by her pet cheetah, Chiquita. Wearing a diamond collar, the feline would sometimes escape into the orchestra pit, which terrified the musicians and further enhanced the wildness of the moment.
When WWII began, Baker was recruited by French military intelligence. She had once expressed support for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s. So when German forces defeated and occupied France, they assumed that Baker was friendly to the fascist cause. She was not. Instead, she took advantage of the Nazi occupiers’ trust, and risked her life on clandestine work on behalf of the Resistance and for the Allies. Her celebrity and fame opened doors, and allowed her to rub shoulders with prominent occupation personnel. She exploited that, and charmed Axis officials she met in social gatherings to collect information.
16. An International Entertainer Who Used Her Work as Cover to Fight the Fascists
As an international entertainer, Josephine Baker had an excuse to travel. So she did just that, within Nazi-occupied Europe, to neutral Portugal, and to South America. She transported coded messages between the French Resistance and the Allies, written in invisible ink on her music sheets. They contained information about German troop concentrations, airfields, harbors, and defenses, all of which Baker smuggled beneath the Nazis’ noses. She also hid fugitives in her home, and supplied them with forged identification papers and visas obtained through her contacts.
In 1941, under cover of health reasons and doctor’s orders after a bout of pneumonia, Baker left a Europe groaning under Nazi occupation. She headed to French North Africa, then under the control of the collaborationist French Vichy regime. In reality, she was there to help the Resistance. She worked from Morocco, traveled back and forth to Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, gathered information, and sent it to Allied intelligence. She counted on her celebrity to avoid a strip search, and pinned intelligence reports to her underwear.
15. This Resistance Heroine Became the Only American Woman to be Buried With Full French Military Honors
While she conducted her clandestine work on behalf of the Resistance in North Africa and Spain, Josephine Baker had a miscarriage that almost put an end to her. She developed an infection so severe, that she needed a complete hysterectomy. Things got worse when the infection spread, and she ended up with sepsis and peritonites. After she recovered, she went on tours to entertain Allied soldiers – who by then had landed in North Africa. Later in the war, Baker joined the French Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was commissioned as a lieutenant, and continued to put on shows for Allied troops.
In recognition of her wartime exploits and contributions to France, Josephine Baker was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honeur by Charles de Gaulle. Among the medals awarded her by the French military were the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with Rosette. When she passed away in 1975, her funeral became the occasion for a huge procession. Josephine Baker became the first – and only – American woman to ever receive full French military honors at her burial, complete with an honor guard and gun salutes.
In 1925, Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz was born in Paris to a Romanian mother and a Belorussian father. One of Charlotte’s grandfathers was an anthropology professor, and she was raised in a highly intellectual environment. Her household’s routines included a weekly salon that often hosted French luminaries of the arts, letters, sciences, and academia. However, her life took a drastic turn for the worse after the Nazis defeated France in 1940. The collaborationist Vichy regime enacted a raft of discriminatory laws that revoked the French citizenship of naturalized Jews, and authorized the internship of foreign Jews or the restriction of their residence. When out in public, Charlotte and her family were forced to wear yellow stars of David sewn to their clothes to identify themselves as Jews.
By 1942, Charlotte’s father was in hiding, and that year, her mother was arrested in a roundup and deported to Auschwitz. Her father and brother fled to Nice in southern France, and were followed soon thereafter by Charlotte, who joined the local Resistance at age seventeen. After her father stumbled upon her stash of weapons, she arranged false identity papers to get him out of the country – and out of her hair. She led him to believe that she would go with him to Switzerland, but at the border, she bid him adieu as she handed him to a guide who escorted him into Switzerland. His daughter then turned around, and returned to the fight.
13. The Teenage Resistance Heroine Who Saved Jewish Children from the Holocaust
As part of her Resistance work, Charlotte Sorkine stashed and transported weapons and money, often under the Nazis’ noses, and created and supplied fake documents. She also guided fugitives to the French border and safety beyond in Switzerland or Spain. In addition to escorting freedom fighters and political opponents of the Nazis and their French puppet regime, her charges included many Jewish children. She also took part in direct action, and on one occasion, planted a bomb that went off in a Paris movie theater where SS members were gathered. She also fought in the 1944 Paris Uprising that preceded that city’s liberation.
For her wartime services, Charlotte received numerous awards. They included the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, the Médaille des Services Volontaires Dans la France Libre, and the War Commemoration Medal. After the war, Charlotte resumed her education, and studied psychology at the Sorbonne and art history at the Louvre, as well as languages. She sailed to America to further her mental health studies, and to examine a model health treatment center in Kansas for replication in Paris. During a rough crossing of the Atlantic, she met and befriended Ernest Hemingway. After her return to France, she got married in a ceremony attended by her Resistance compatriots, and settled into family life and a rewarding professional career.
On September 5th, 2018, Freddie Oversteegen, a Dutch Resistance heroine of WWII, passed in her nineties of a heart attack. She had been preceded into the afterlife two years earlier, in 2016, by her older sister, Truus, another resistance heroine in the fight against the Nazis. As part of their underground activities against the German occupiers, the Oversteegen sisters had risked their lives to circulate leaflets, help Jewish fugitives escape the Holocaust, and take out the occasional Nazi when the opportunity presented itself.
However, what was most remarkable about Truus and Freddie Oversteegen was not the cool courage they displayed as they put their necks on the lines to fight the Third Reich. Nor was it the fact that they were a sibling resistance team. While those were remarkable aspects, what stood out the most about them was that they did what they did while they were still teenagers. Truus was only sixteen when she joined the Dutch Resistance, while Freddie was just fourteen when she became an antifascist combatant.
11. These Young Resistance Heroines Were Committed Antifascists Even Before the Germans Occupied Their Country
Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were born into a left wing working class family, and grew up in an industrial district north of Amsterdam known as the “Red Zone” for its residents’ political bent. In the 1930s, their parents actively assisted an organization known as Red Aid, which helped Jewish and political refugees escape Nazi Germany to the safety of the Netherlands and beyond. In their youth, the sisters grew accustomed to fugitives hiding in their household from Dutch police, who were likely to deport and hand them over to the Gestapo at the border.
The pair were thus already antifascist long before the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, when Truus was sixteen-years-old and Freddie was fourteen. When the Nazis began to deport Dutch Jews, the occupied country’s communists and socialists came together in February, 1941, to lead a massive strike in protest. It was one of the few successful nationwide protests against the Germans. In response, the Nazis ramped up their repression and brutality in order to cow the occupied Dutch into obedience and force them to toe the line. The occupiers’ repression further alienated even more Dutch people, and drove them into the arms of the resistance.
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