How Young Audrey Hepburn Supported the Dutch Resistance in World War II

Fashion legend Audrey Hepburn was a powerhouse of a star for the time she was physically on the Hollywood scene. As an actor, she became part of history with the stylish film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was also an original muse for designer Hubert de Givenchy.

At this point, she seems to be an everlasting icon of celebrity style. But her life wasn’t always so outwardly elegant. In fact, she experienced malnourishment and mortal fear as a young girl living in Holland during World War II. And she kept a secret about her mother from that time that those who knew her said angered her, and also terrified her.

What did Hepburn do to assist the resistance to Nazi occupation? And what was her mother doing at the same time?  

Audrey Hepburn sits with her knees pulled up, wearing a white shirt and colorful, striped pants
Audrey Hepburn | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

Audrey Hepburn carried secret messages for the Dutch Resistance in World War II

Born in 1929, Hepburn was still in her youth when German forces invaded Holland in 1940. A biography titled Dutch Girl shares some of what her life was like during that 5-year occupation. The author searched police files, dug through archives, and interviewed people who knew Hepburn to learn how the icon barely survived. (Per People.)

Despite her young age, she risked execution and became active in the Dutch Resistance, delivering newspapers between groups opposing the occupation. She also carried messages hidden in her shoes, sometimes to British and American pilots who crashed in Holland. For a time, her family risked it all and hid a British paratrooper in their home.

All the while, she was severely malnourished due to strained food supplies. According to her family, that period of starvation contributed to a lifelong slender frame that both set trends and sparked rumors.

Though Hepburn’s story is one of bravery, she didn’t seem to share all the details with the public once she became a star. Supposedly, she feared a backlash over her mother’s activities at the same time.   

Audrey Hepburn’s mother might have been fond of Adolf Hitler

According to Dutch Girl, Hepburn’s mother, Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra, seemingly believed the promises of Adolf Hitler’s nationalist rhetoric. As such, she was an avid supporter and wrote fondly of him in a British Fascist newspaper. Some witnesses claimed she kept a framed picture of herself with him.

Hepburn’s father, Joseph, was also reportedly a Nazi sympathizer but divorced Van Heemstra and left the family somewhere around 1935. Some observers note how it’s possible Van Heemstra felt maintaining cordial relationships with Nazi officers would be the best way to keep her family safe.  

No matter the reasons for her original sympathies, those who knew her said she changed her mind once she observed the violence of Hitler’s regime. Gestapo arrested their Jewish friends and neighbors, carting them away to concentration camps. Her brother-in-law, who didn’t share her supportive views towards the Nazis, was executed. At that point, her understandings — and her loyalties — supposedly changed.

Audrey Hepburn was never able to accept her mother’s affiliations during World War II

Ella van Heemstra, holding a bouquet, and daughter, Audrey Hepburn, pose cheek-to-cheek.
Ella van Heemstra and Audrey Hepburn | Bettmann

According to Dutch Girl, Hepburn was angry with her parents in her youth but guarded her mother’s secret throughout most of her life. Though she is now applauded for her heroism despite the influence of her parents, she supposedly feared public response to their activities in the decades following the war.

Notably, her mother was eventually investigated for her involvement with the Nazi regime. In the end, Dutch officials concluded she was not guilty of committing any crimes. Her father, on the other hand, spent time in a British prison as an enemy of the state, according to Biography.

Those close to Hepburn say she shared an unbreakable bond with Van Heemstra that they nurtured in the years after World War II. She remained in her mother’s life and cared for her up until her death in 1984. Less than a decade later, Hepburn died of abdominal cancer at the age of 63.

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