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Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
I have to tell you, I have not read a book having anything to do with Nazis or even World War 2 in a very long time. I think the last thing might have been a book I read about the Mitford sisters, one of whom was a big fan of Hitler’s. She used to hang out with him a lot.
But the Audrey Hepburn connection got my attention. She was so beautiful and graceful. The few movies she made were memorable, and then she devoted the rest of her life to her family and helping others.
I knew that Hepburn was in the Netherlands during World War 2, but that’s about all, so that’s one reason I was interested in this book.
Another is the striking photo art of Dutch Girl, which will get you. Actually, the photo of a teenaged Audrey Hepburn reminds me a lot of my mom’s senior photo. My mom was about 10 years younger than Hepburn, but the photos themselves are much the same as are their hairstyles. My mom was also a scrawny 89 pounds at graduation, but that wasn’t because she didn’t have enough to eat…it was, as she later found out, that she was born with a hearing loss which was connected to her having no sense of taste nor smell. Although riding out World War 2 in Massachusetts was much, much better than riding it out in the Netherlands, apparently they still didn’t have the resources for a lot of school health screenings, so my mom’s condition wasn’t discovered until later.
But I digress. My mom was awesome in many ways, but she wasn’t Audrey Hepburn.
What interested me in this book is that it is the story of Audrey Hepburn’s war. I’m not really a huge fan of Hepburn’s, but I like some of her movies, especially The Nun’s Story, and have enjoyed watching many of them. I knew enough about her, however, to know that she was Dutch and also that she had trained as a ballet dancer. But I really didn’t know exactly what had happened to her. I wouldn’t have read any of the interviews that she had done about the war.
What author Robert Matzen undertook, however, was to take what Hepburn said about her past, in bits and pieces, and link it to artifacts and records that survived, basically to determine whether what she said was true or not.
Many people in Europe, it’s true, found that by necessity they needed to cloak what had happened to them during the War, particularly, I would imagine, those who survived the Occupation. People had families to protect, and who knew how the whole thing would turn out in the end? So it makes sense to take even what an icon like Audrey Hepburn said about herself with a grain…or perhaps more…of salt.
But you really don’t need to be an Audrey Hepburn fan at all to want to read, and enjoy this book. There are many more reasons.
First, this book unpacks, practically day by day, it seems, what it was like to grow up in the occupied Netherlands, not as a member of one of the groups that were hunted by the Nazis, but as an everyday citizen. If anything, Hepburn’s family was slightly privileged as members of the impoverished Dutch nobility…they had the titles and the social status, albeit without any lands or money to support it. In the end, their status made them a bit of a target for the Nazis, but Hepburn’s mother’s…and sit down for this one…early support of Hitler and Fascism put the family in a slightly privileged position at the beginning of the occupation. Luckily, her mother came to see the error of her thinking early on in the occupation, and in the end, of course, everyone suffered greatly, but on the whole, Hepburn’s family was not particularly targeted.
The family, could in fact, have chosen a more neutral position than they did, but it’s clear that they did work for the Dutch Resistance throughout the war, and that included the teenaged Hepburn.
Another reason to read this book is that it is a chilling, engaging read that you will find yourself tearing through with bated breath even though you know how it’s going to end…well, you jolly well know that Hepburn survived at least. While Matzen has written a scholarly work of history, he uses the style of well-written fiction. As I was reading it, I felt exactly the same as Luca Dotti, Hepburn’s son, who writes in the forward, “Even I immediately forgot that there would be a happy ending for Audrey. As I read, I realized that bomb, that bullet, that German truck and its load of prisoners could simply be The End.” For the record, I didn’t bother to read the forward until after I had read the book, and as I read this book, I couldn’t believe how bated was my breath.
Finally, as I mentioned, this is a work of historical scholarship. While excerpts of events that Hepburn publicly recounted begin many of the chapters, in order to show how the snippets she shared were in fact plausible, as unrealistic as they might seem, most of the notes are at the end of the book…and they form almost a separate work on their own. Not because they are particularly long, but because they provide a separate narrative letting the reader know how conclusions were drawn, and what evidence supports the story told in this book and at times, how the evidence disproves assertions made by earlier biographers.
2020 has been a tough year for a lot of us, if not all of us, in different ways. I read Dutch Girl at a time when I needed to remember that life is not always fair, in fact, often it is not. Bad things happen to good people, and to so-so people, just as good things happen to bad. We really aren’t owed anything in this life, and sometimes things are just bad and then they get worse.
What Dutch Girl reminds me in the end is the importance of not giving up, staying true to what I believe in, and trying to make use of what life teaches me.
The rest is as up to the fates as though I were living Greek mythology. But that’s another story.
Dutch Girl in Context
In this amazing 1990 video clip of Audrey Hepburn being interviewed on the television show Donahue (I can’t believe I had to explain this, but Donahue had been doing this show for years when Oprah went national) you will be mesmerized by her grace and wit as well as her tales of World War 2. It’s interviews such as these that Matzen authenticated in Dutch Girl.
A lot of people like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Roman Holiday, but my favorite Hepburn movie is The Nun’s Story, which is based on the real life experiences of Katharine Hulme.
I think out of all of her films, The Nun’s Story is probably closest to Hepburn’s real life as she was born in Belgium, where the film is set, and Gabrielle/Sister Luke becomes involved in the Resistance near the end (the book goes into more detail than the film).
This movie also foreshadows Hepburn’s future life as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador when Sister Luke goes to the Congo to serve as a medical missionary.
One of the six Mitford sisters, Unity (pictured bottom left on the book below) had a thing for Adolf Hitler. No kidding. So Matzen drew of some of her letters early in the war to reconstruct Hepburn’s mother’s connections with Fascism and the Nazi party.
Read Belonging: Did you ever wonder if you have Nazis in your Family? for a wonderful graphic memoir about what it means to be German.