Dutch Girl: Audrey Hep­burn and World War II

Robert Matzen (auth.), Luca Doti (fore­ward)

  • Review
By – November 13, 2019

Robert Matzen writes the sto­ry of young Audrey Hep­burn, who grew up in Nazi-occu­pied Nether­lands. From ages ten to fif­teen years old, Hep­burn was liv­ing with her moth­er, grand­fa­ther, and assort­ed aunts and uncles; she was involved with her bal­let train­ing more than any­thing else. In lat­er life, she did not dis­cuss her war years — she pre­ferred rais­ing funds for reha­bil­i­ta­tion projects or for UNICEF, rather than reminiscing.

Matzen duti­ful­ly sketch­es Hepburn’s upbring­ing — but his real pas­sion is for the war itself. In great detail, region by region, he recounts the Nazi takeover of the Nether­lands and the Allied bat­tles to recap­ture key bridges and towns. His many accounts of air bat­tles with var­i­ous fight­er bombers straf­ing the Dutch streets have a very vis­cer­al qual­i­ty that is quite unnerving.

Yet what is most unnerv­ing about this book is the absence of the Jews. While Matzen does describe some sim­i­lar­i­ties between Audrey Hep­burn and Anne Frank, and men­tions that some Jews were onder­duik­ers—or peo­ple in hid­ing — this is large­ly a sto­ry of day to day life in Hol­land after the Jews were removed. Ella van Heem­stra, Hepburn’s moth­er, wrote news­pa­per columns in the spring of 1935 prais­ing fas­cism; she par­tied with the Mit­ford sis­ters, flirt­ed with Herr Hitler. Even after the Nazis had sent Dutch Jews to death camps and installed fas­cists in key pub­lic offices, Heem­stra was still angling for work with the occu­piers. It wasn’t until mid-1942 that Heem­stra switched sides, when the Nazis took hostage a beloved fam­i­ly mem­ber and shot him in a reprisal against sabo­teurs. After the war, when her col­lab­o­ra­tion was ques­tioned, she edit­ed her his­to­ry, and made sure that Hep­burn was selec­tive with details as well.

So, what about Hep­burn? Ear­ly in the occu­pa­tion, her moth­er had her doing bal­let recitals for Nazis. Before long, such pub­lic per­for­mances were impos­si­ble with­out fas­cist bona fides, so Hep­burn gave covert recitals and bal­let lessons for her com­mu­ni­ty. Lat­er in the war, she rolled ban­dages for the wound­ed; as a young teenag­er, she could, like oth­er kids, run mes­sages for the Resis­tance with­out attract­ing atten­tion. But she was young and her moth­er dom­i­nat­ed her life, so it is unclear if she was involved in any­thing risky. By the last phase of the war, every­one was freez­ing and starv­ing to death; sto­ries of vil­lagers eat­ing tulip bulbs, dead grass, or the neighbor’s dog, replace tales of anyone’s hero­ic resis­tance. Matzen wraps up with some upbeat chap­ters on Hepburn’s adult life and career..

In many ways, this is more a biog­ra­phy of occu­pied Hol­land than a biog­ra­phy of Audrey Hep­burn. As such, it’s an inter­est­ing addi­tion to the World War II his­to­ry shelf.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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