Audrey Hepburn was born in 1929 in Brussels and was given the name Audrey Kathleen Ruston. She was an icon in Hollywood, garnering many accolades. Not only did she win the Oscar in 1954 for “Roman Holiday;” her film career included numerous nominations and wins in a multitude of venues right up until her death in 1993. She is one of few people who has won an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy Award.
Hepburn came from royalty. Her mother, Ella, was the daughter of Baroness Elbrig van Asbeck and Baron Aernoud van Heemstra from the Netherlands. Their lineage was from Dutch, Hungarian and French roots. Her father, Joseph Ruston, was born in Bohemia (Czech Republic) with ancestral roots of English, Scottish, Irish, French and Austrian. When Ella and Joseph wed, it was the second marriage for both and Ella had two sons, Alexander and Ian from her first marriage. The family initially settled in Brussels, Belgium.
When Hepburn was five years old, Ella sent her to boarding school in England. During her time there, Ella enrolled Hepburn in ballet classes and Hepburn developed a passion for dance and music. When England declared war on Germany in 1939, Ella sent for her daughter to return to Holland. Ella believed it would be safer in the Netherlands because it was a neutral country in the war. She never expected Germany to invade the Netherlands. Hepburn’s father had abandoned the family by this time and was working in England. He put Audrey on one of the last planes leaving the country. She wouldn’t see her father again until in the 1960s when she located him in Dublin through the Red Cross. Though he was emotionally detached from her, she continued to support him financially and stay in contact with him until his death.
Life During the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands
Unfortunately, Ella’s desire to shield Hepburn from WW II did not happen. On May 10, 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands and subsequently occupied the country. Ella changed Hepburn’s name to Edda van Heemstra because “Audrey Hepburn” sounded too English and thus was considered more dangerous. After the German invasion, Hepburn’s half-brother Ian, at age 19, was taken by the Nazis for working with the resistance and deported to a labor camp in Berlin. Alexander went underground to avoid the same fate. Hepburn saw her uncle get shot and killed. For the duration of the war, neither Ella nor Hepburn knew whether Ian was alive or dead.
Ella, her sister Miesje, and Hepburn went to stay with Ella’s parents in Arnhem for the duration of the war. Ella enrolled Hepburn in the Arnhem Conservatory where she continued with ballet. Hepburn participated in “black-out performances” which were organized to fund the resistance; as well as giving ballet instructions in her grandfather’s house to refugee girls.
Near the end of the war in 1944, allied troops attempted to gain control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem as part of the Operation Market Garden offense. The Germans unfortunately were too strongly fortified and the attempt failed. The exiled Dutch government appealed to the railways to go on strike to aid the allies. When the railways complied in early September, the German administration struck back by placing an embargo on all food transports to western Netherlands. Though the embargo was partially lifted in November by allowing restricted food transports over water, an early winter had set in and frozen the canals. What followed was called the "Hongerwinter" or "Hunger Winter."
Food quickly began to dwindle and by April, 1945 the weekly ration was 400 kilograms of bread and one kilogram of potatoes per adult. Gas and electricity were turned off and homes had no heat. Even food stock on the black market was scarce. Many families, including Hepburn’s, resorted to eating grass and making flour from tulip bulbs. During this time, Hepburn suffered malnutrition, which resulted in developing acute anemia, asthma and edema. She became too weak to dance. To occupy her time, she drew and some of her artwork from those years can be viewed today.
In a 1991 interview, Hepburn said “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.”
The liberation of the Netherlands coincided with Hepburn’s sixteenth birthday. United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration brought food to the deprived population. In her later years, Hepburn recounts eating a whole can of condensed milk and getting sick from one of her first relief meals because she added too much sugar to her oatmeal.
After the liberation, Hepburn’s half-brothers returned home and she and her mother relocated to Amsterdam where Hepburn resumed her studies in ballet and music. Three years later, she moved to London to study with renown ballet teacher Marie Rambert in her quest to become a prima ballerina. It was not to be however, as she was told the deprivation she suffered during the winter of 1944-1945 had physically hindered her ability to become a prima ballerina. Disappointed, but undaunted, Hepburn danced onstage in the chorus, modeled to make ends meet, and eventually landed starring roles. Soon after, her film career began.
Hepburn’s humanitarian activities are directly related to her experiences during World War 2. She became heavily involved with UNICEF. Hepburn also founded the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund which has various projects to benefit children. In addition to her awards for her work in the performing arts; Audrey Hepburn was awarded various awards for her humanitarian efforts.
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