It was May 9, 1940, and Audrey Kathleen (Hepburn-) Ruston had just turned eleven. To celebrate, her mother, the wealthy Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra, had bought tickets for them to see a performance by the great English troupe, The Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Ella and her children had not been in the Netherlands very long. Ella had brought Audrey (1929-1993) and her two sons from England to her parents’ home in Arnhem nine months earlier, when Hitler had invaded Poland. Ella felt they would all be safe in Holland, a neutral country.
Audrey loved her grown-up dress for the ballet. “My mother had our little dressmaker make me a long taffeta dress,” said Audrey later. “It went all the way to the ground, and it rustled. The reason she got me this, at great expense, was that I was to present a bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance to…the director of the company.” She did precisely that. The spray of tulips and roses was hurriedly accepted, though, as the dancers hustled to leave Arnhem that very evening, advised by the British consul. (1)
The very next day, Friday, May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands. Three days later they blasted Rotterdam with an air attack that killed 30,000 Dutch civilians. Incendiary bombs were dropped on the Hague. Holland surrendered. Nazi troops soon tore through Arnhem, looting and despoiling as they pleased. Audrey’s family was allowed to remain at their regal ancestral home. Over the next ten months, the van Heemstra bank accounts, securities, and jewelry would be confiscated by the Nazis. Rations were imposed on food and fuel which were soon in short supply for the suffering Dutch people. Food became completely nonexistent during the Hunger Winter of 1944 as the Germans cut off all imports of foods to punish the Dutch Resistance.During that time, Audrey confessed to eating tulip bulbs and baking grass into bread to keep from starving to death like 20,000 other Dutch citizens did that winter.
The German occupiers spread anti-English sentiment, banning the import of British jams and biscuits. Audrey Ruston was an English name and Audrey spoke English. She carried a British passport. Quickly, Audrey’s mother gave Audrey a new identity as a little Dutch girl. She changed her daughter’s name from Audrey Ruston to Edda van Heemstra. Audrey took Dutch lessons so she could pass as Dutch and not be arrested for being English. Audrey did not risk speaking English for the rest of the war.
In 1941, Ella sent Audrey to the Arnhem Conservatory to study dance. It was then that Audrey decided that she wanted to grow up to become a ballerina. Her dream was to “wear a tutu and dance at Covent Garden.” Her mother made her ballet slippers from scraps of felt.
As a child of war, Audrey learned to cope with hunger, fear, and deprivation through art, music, and dance. Soon, though, she and some other dancers began staging private, secret dance shows to raise money for the Dutch Resistance. “I designed the dances myself,” Audrey recalled, remembering the performances. “I had a friend that played the piano, and my mother made the costumes. They were very amateurish attempt – but…it amused people. The recitals were given in houses with windows and doors closed, and no one outside knew what was going on. Afterward, money was collected and turned over to the Dutch Underground.” To keep from being discovered, the audiences did not clap. “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”
Sometimes at these “black performances,” resistance workers attended. They gave the young performers money and folded messages to be stuffed into the children’s shoes and transported the next day to resistance workers. The children risked death to save the lives of resistance workers and Audrey was one of these children.
One winter day, Audrey was walking along a city street when three truckloads full of German soldiers toting rifles stopped suddenly. The soldiers ordered all the girls in their sight to line up and get in the trucks. Audrey did as she was told. As the trucks drove off, Audrey kept saying the Lord’s Prayer to herself in Dutch. Then the convoy stopped unexpectedly. Some soldiers jumped out and began abusing some Jews. Audrey said:
I remember hearing the dull sound of a rifle butt hitting a man’s face. And I jumped down, dropped to my knees, and rolled under the truck. I then skittered out, hoping the driver would not notice me – and he didn’t.”
And where was Audrey’s father all this time? Shortly after lunching with Hitler in Munich in May of 1935, Joseph Ruston deserted Audrey, her mother, and Ella’s two sons and never returned. Later Ruston was arrested in England and accused of peddling Nazi propaganda for the notorious leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. Ruston remained under house arrest for the duration of the war on the Isle of Man with other suspected Nazi sympathizers. After the war, he added the name Hepburn to his surname, becoming Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, Hepburn being his maternal grandmother’s maiden name and one linked to royalty. Audrey did the same and dropped the Ruston, becoming Audrey Hepburn.
(1) Spoto, Donald. Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn. (New York: Harmony Books, 2006)