Audrey Hepburn’s Painful Story

“Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II” reviewed by Paul J. Bradley.

The public image of the legendary film star and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, with her radiant smile, elegance and enduring beauty, seems so engrained within our cultural psyche that we think we know her. In “Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II”, acclaimed biographer Robert Matzen explores a less familiar side of the notably private actress. He expertly and vividly tells the true story of young Audrey’s harrowing experiences during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands.

Audrey Hepburn was born Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston in Belgium in 1929 but was living in The Netherlands by the time the Germans had invaded. Her mother was the Baroness Ella van Heemstra who was of Dutch nobility but was not wealthy. The author informs that the only gold that can be found near a van Heemstra “gleamed on the impressive family coat of arms”. 

Audrey’s father, Joseph Ruston, also did not have much money despite being from a wealthy family. Ruston’s background was British and Austrian, but he told Ella that he was the descendant of James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Having always liked the idea of having a connection to British nobility, Ella encouraged James to change his name to the double-barreled Hepburn-Ruston. 

Although she did not discuss this to the general public, Audrey resented that her parents were supporters of the Nazis. Ella even met Adolf Hitler, although she did change her political allegiances over time. 

To the horror of both mother and daughter, Joseph was soon to walk out on his family and relocate to London to become more involved in fascist activity. Audrey would never quite recover from “the shock of the separation”.

Despite spending some of her childhood in England, Audrey and her mother moved to Arnhem in The Netherlands, near the German border. Audrey struggled at school because she did not know much Dutch and classmates made fun of her accent. Audrey was able to find some comfort with her relatives, especially her uncle and aunt, Otto and Wilhelmina.

Audrey’s passion for dance was growing and she would soon become a very promising ballerina. She enrolled into Arnhem’s music school in 1940, six months after the German soldiers marched into the city. The overly domineering Ella had strongly encouraged her daughter’s ambitions. As Ella had close affiliations with the Nazis meant that Audrey’s first dance performance was in front of German soldiers in 1941.  

There was a certain sense of normality when the Germans had first arrived, but it was not before long when things were not normal and that the Nazi brutality became obvious. Audrey could still remember cattle trucks full of Jews being taken away to the concentration camps. 

It was only a matter of time when their cruelty would hit home when her beloved uncle Otto “had been taken away without explanation, beginning a nightmare that, for the rest of her life, would never truly end”. Otto and four other hostages had been taken to a remote forest and forced by the German soldiers to dig their own graves, where they were blindfolded, shot by firing squad and buried.

This already had been a trying time for Audrey. The family moved to the nearby village of Velp. Clearly upset by her parents’ political views, shocked by her father’s abandonment of the family, hurt by her father’s abandonment and then devastated by the Nazi execution of her Uncle Otto, Audrey found solace in her passion for dance. Audrey was becoming a successful ballet performer and used these skills to raise funds and raise morale for the Dutch resistance. She also supported a doctor who had helped organize resistance activities.

The Battle of Arnheim created terrible devastation for the city in September 1944, but Velp faced dreadful conditions in the final year of the war. Germans withheld food supplies from the city which meant that many people died from starvation during the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945. Audrey became very anemic, suffered from respiratory problems and had edema due to complications caused by malnutrition. 

These are all painful experiences that Audrey freely disclose. Acclaimed author Robert Matzen has painstakingly put together the missing pieces of her teenage years and has effectively discovered more of the real person behind the much-loved movie star and humanitarian. 

There much to be said about Audrey in the very touching forward for the book by Audrey’s son Luca Dotti, who explains that he did not know Audrey Hepburn. Hollywood, he said, was the missing guest. He and his brother grew up with a “present and loving mother as opposed to a glamourous but absent movie star”. Audrey’s priorities were obviously to all those who were close to her. 

From reading Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II it becomes understandable why privacy was so important to Audrey. She needed to protect the lives of those she had loved. She was also very affected by her wartime experiences throughout her whole life. 

Audrey even turned down the lead film role of Anne Frank, despite encouragement from Anne’s father to reconsider. Audrey had felt that Anne’s tragically short life had many similarities to her own. She once referred to Anne Frank as “a soul sister” but knew that playing the tragic lead would have been too painful for her.

Robert Matzen’s fascinating biography reveals the hidden Audrey. This is a story of Audrey’s courage, perseverance, tragedy and triumph. Using effective use of flash-forward moments, it becomes easier to understand just how those turbulent times defined Audrey’s personality and career. 

Audrey would later recall only some of her war time experiences during her time as UNICEF Special Ambassador, but even these recollections must have been painful for her. The wonderfully written Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II reveals many of these painful experiences which in turn describes beautifully this wonderful person we all thought we knew. 

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II 

By Robert Matzen

GoodKnight Books



Audrey Hepburn and Paul J. Bradley

I had the privilege of meeting Audrey Hepburn at the UNICEF Children’s Day held at the Westbury Hotel, Dublin, on September 30th in 1988. I was invited as a UNICEF supporter and Youth Worker.

Audrey was a wonderful lady, and she was certainly lovely to me. Audrey’s partner, actor Robert Wolders, who sadly passed a few years ago, was also a very pleasant person to speak to.

I am eternally grateful to those wonderful UNICEF committee members for that wonderful day.

I would also like to thank the staff and family members at the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund. It was an honor for me to be a friend of this organisation through the years.

I would like to especially thank Executive Director Ellen Fontana. I am forever grateful for your kindness and friendship.

And thank you Audrey Hepburn.

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