Adam Roche reveals how the Hollywood star, who became the epitome of style, beauty and charm, hid a secret past as a resistance fighter who helped defeat the Nazis during the Second World War
Audrey Hepburn’s voice is often thought to have been cultivated to appear to be more cultured than she actually was: a curious blend of cut-glass English with a sultrier European influence. Certainly there has never been a voice so distinctive or recognisable in movies since. But the story of its formation is, peculiarly, also the story of the girl herself.
Born to a wannabe English financier, and a Dutch Baroness, Audrey’s upbringing was never destined to be simple. Her father, Joseph Hepburn, was a man driven by a desire for wealth and who had no qualms about lying about his family history in order to gain entry to society. Her mother, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra, had been born into Dutch nobility.
Both parents were of the unfortunate belief that the rising fascist movement in Europe was a positive thing. Past business dealings meant the promise that wealth would be taken from the pockets of ‘greedy Jews’ and restored to those who deserved it appealed to Joseph. And the Baroness, regrettably, agreed that protecting her family’s fortunes was a priority.
But it wasn’t long before the Fascist movement began to show its real colours. As violence and prejudice began to explode all over Europe, the Baroness renounced her political beliefs. Joseph, however, did not. This led to a rift in the Hepburn household which, compounded with Joseph’s philandering, saw the Baroness taking her children, Jan, Alexander and Audrey away from their home in Belgium, to England to begin again.
For several years, Audrey Hepburn lived as happily as any other English schoolgirl, attending school in Elham in Kent and studying ballet at a provincial academy. She spoke fluent English but blended with a curious Dutch lilt.
Troubled times ahead
It was impossible to deny that Audrey seemed to have an effect on everyone who met her. She was forever smiling, forever cheerful, even though inside her heart was breaking. Though Joseph had been a somewhat gruff presence in the house, she missed his strength, his stories and the soothing music in his voice.
But trouble was brewing. The German armies had begun to ride roughshod over Europe, and England was preparing to go to war. The Baroness was called home to Holland when her mother suddenly died, and she had to decide whether to leave Audrey in England, which was soon to become an enemy of Germany, or should she take her to Holland, a country intending to remain neutral?
History now tells us the Baroness could not have made a worse choice.
Audrey’s life in Holland began happily enough. Her brothers, who had been attending private school, joined their sister and mother at the family home in Arnhem for the first Christmas there. Also joining the gathering were the Baroness Ella’s brother and her sisters Arnoudina, Geraldine, Marianne and Miesje.
Miesje’s husband was Otto Graaf van Limburg Stirum, one of the most well-respected judges in Holland, and he and Audrey hit it off instantly. To him, Audrey was a refreshing sight, a spark of beauty in a world going to hell, and to her, he was a wise, smiling man, who always applauded loudest when she danced, and who always asked for her hand when they went in to dinner.
But in the spring of 1940, the first rumbles began in the distance. Startled, the Dutch tried to ignore the sounds at their border. Audrey found herself shaken from sleep by her panicked mother one morning, and given the news that Germany had broken its pact with Holland, and had begun an invasion.
Germany’s assault on Holland was utterly devastating. Holland’s air force, woefully under-prepared for such a fight, were quickly overwhelmed and destroyed by Germany’s modern technology. The attack upon Rotterdam was catastrophic. Within a single day, 25,000 homes, 24 churches, 3,000 business, 62 schools and more than 1,000 people had been lost forever. The once sprawling metropolis was now a desert.
Faced with such military might, the Dutch had little choice but to surrender, giving the Germans a spectacular strategic advantage.
Audrey and her family looked on in shock as the soldiers ransacked houses, and in some cases, turned entire families out onto the streets. Over the next year, the Dutch saw their way of life swiftly eradicated. The new German government, the Reichskommissariat Niederlande, quickly did away with all political opposition parties. Trade unions were made illegal. Religious denominations were either prohibited or forced to include pro-Nazi teachings in their sermons. The education system was overhauled entirely, with German History replacing World History. At school assemblies, pupils were required to swear allegiance to Germany and Adolf Hitler.
But perhaps more than most things, the Germans in Holland were keen to change the Dutch view of the English, a country that many in Holland looked to with admiration, mainly because their Queen Wilhelmina and her cabinet were currently in exile there.
Each time the Queen delivered a defiant radio broadcast, the occupying Germans would retaliate by introducing a new anti-English sanction. The British flag was banned as was the use of English in day-to-day conversations. Even the import of British sauces, jams and biscuits was outlawed.
This placed Audrey in a terrifying situation. English was her native tongue, and up until the invasion, it’d never been considered vital for her to speak Dutch. However, if the Germans suddenly learned that a British girl was living among them, then it was more than likely that she would be arrested and never heard from again.
The answer was a swift course of Dutch, and the order not to utter a word of English in public. For the eleven-year old Audrey this was no mean feat.
“My mother is Dutch, my father English, but I was born in Belgium,” she said later. “So I had heard English and Dutch inside our house and French outside. There is no speech I can relax into when I’m tired, because my ear has never been accustomed to one intonation. It’s because I have no mother tongue that the critics accuse me of curious speech.”
It was precisely the odd blend of French, Dutch and cut-glass English that gave Audrey Hepburn her distinctive voice. The carefully measured percentages of each influence, the clipped consonants of British village life, the symphonic lulls and bounces of French, and the Dutch extended dives into vowel sounds, that combined to create one of the most unmistakeable voices in cinema.
For many nervous months, Audrey did her best to remember her Dutch in public, while an undergound resistance against the Germans was beginning.
Audrey’s brothers, Jan and Alexander, were both active in the resistance, working tirelessly to hide resistance workers and arrange papers and funds for Germany’s enemies.
Alexander was the first to be arrested, condemned to servitude in a work camp, but news soon reached them that he had escaped while being transported, and that he was being hunted as an enemy of Germany. Jan was taken a few weeks later, snatched from outside their home, and his fate became a mystery.
Soon afterwards, the Dutch resistance staged an attack upon a freight train that proved ineffective. Nevertheless, the German forces rounded up a dozen known resistance fighters in the area, among them Audrey’s favourite uncle, Otto, and executed them in front of the town.
“Don’t discount anything you hear or read about the Nazis,” she said, many years later. “We saw our relatives put against the wall and shot. It was worse than you could ever imagine”.
But despite these losses, Audrey and her mother were not dissuaded from joining the fight against their oppressors. Despite the threat of death, The Baroness agreed to let her home be used to hide several resistance fighters, and Audrey herself put her skills as a ballet dancer to use. At night she would dance for small gatherings, collecting donations to help with the resistance cause. After ballet classes, she and her fellow ballerinas would deliver messages or bank notes to resistance members across the city.
On one occasion, she was even enlisted to deliver a coded message to a British airman hiding in Arnhem forest. Nervously, she made her way through the forest, met with the airman, giving him instructions on how to escape the area. But upon leaving the forest, she found herself faced with two German soldiers, who demanded to know what she was doing there. Calmly, she held up a bunch of flowers she’d picked, and offered them as a gift, pretending not to understand their questions.
The ruse worked. Audrey Hepburn had just saved a British airman’s life, as well as her own.
Several months later, she was picked up by a gang of German soldiers, along with a dozen other young girls, and taken by truck out towards a German barracks, in order to provide ‘company’ for lonely German soldiers. As they travelled, and as Audrey contemplated the grim fate before her, the truck suddenly skidded to a halt.
The soldiers climbed out and began to harass a Jewish boy walking along the road. In the confusion, Audrey slipped from the rear of the truck and rolled into a nearby bush, listening as the soldiers drew their guns and shot the boy. She watched as the truck grumbled away, praising God that she’d had the nerve to escape.
By 1944, the Allies had begun their assault on German defences, culminating in Operation Market Garden, a strategy designed to take back control of Holland by seizing three locations; Nijmegen, Eindhoven and Arnhem.
For days, Allied forces struggled against German might, and were eventually beaten back. But in the wake of this fierce battle, the residents of Holland were left battle-scarred and numbed by a hopeless, bleak fight that had robbed them of not just their morale, but their supplies.
As punishment for their perceived treachery Germany withheld all food and medical supplies from the Dutch people, forcing them to evacuate from the larger cities. Audrey and her family joined the 100,000 strong making an exodus from Arnhem, 3,000 of whom would die from starvation along the way.
From late 1944 until spring of 1945, the ‘Hunger Winter’ fell upon Holland, a tortuous punishment that would claim five million lives and maim a further 22,000, among them Audrey and her family, who had fled to their country house in Velp to find shelter.
Here, Audrey and her mother were forced to scratch in the soil for tulip bulbs to eat, forcing weeds down with rain water in order to survive one more day. “If you went on,” she said later, “you might live – and if you lived you weren’t dead. If we got through with our lives, that was the only thing that mattered”.
One night, Audrey become so desperate that she stumbled the four miles back to the skeleton of Arnhem in search of food. While she searched, she was almost discovered by a German patrol, and was forced to hide in a freezing cellar for days on end until they had moved on.
By the time she managed to stagger back to Velp, Audrey was in the early stages of malnutrition. Dizziness seemed to attack at random. Cramps shook her limbs, and her skin carried a sickly sheen, painful to the touch. But there was little that her mother could do. Medical supplies, along with food, were non-existent.
It was on May 4, 1945, Audrey’s 16th birthday, that visitors arrived in Velp. They rode in on trucks and wagons. On tanks and transports, having finally forced their way in through German defences. The first English soldier to encounter the frail, yellow-skinned girl on the lawn approached and asked if he could help.
Croakily, Audrey asked him for a cigarette. He watched as she sucked in the blue smoke and choked violently, before grinning. Timidly, she asked him for something to eat. He thought for a moment, then took off his pack and pulled from it a bar of chocolate.
She reached to take it, but he pulled it away. She watched as he glanced down at her swollen feet, at the puffiness of her skin around the neck. He reached into his pack again and took out five more bars. “You probably need these more than I do, kiddo,” he smiled.
“Freedom has a special smell to me,” Audrey said afterwards. ‘The smell of English petrol and English cigarettes‘.
The war was over, and in time Audrey Hepburn would not just heal, but ascend. She had stared death and destruction in the face, and had conquered fear. Seizing life and opportunity each day made it possible for her to blossom into the iconic star that we know today, but her experiences of displacement and famine also led to a lifelong association with UNICEF, in which she devoted herself to the care of children around the world.
It is a lesson to anyone, that from the darkest moments in life, the seeds of courage can grow; that strength, determination and kindness sometimes have the power to turn a lost voice into one of hope.