The Wisdom of Audrey Hepburn

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

This portrait taken in Arnhem three months after the death of Uncle Otto showed a face that already knew war too well.

Where is Audrey Hepburn when we need her? I’m reminded of Audrey’s experiences daily now as we all get a taste of life in a wartime setting. Audrey endured World War II as a youngster in the Netherlands—11 when the Germans marched into the Netherlands in 1940, and 15 the day Canadians liberated her town in 1945. If you’ve read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (GoodKnight Books), you know that for the last eight months of the war, Audrey, her mother Ella, Aunt Miesje, and Grandfather the Baron van Heemstra were limited for large stretches of time to their modest home, Villa Beukenhof, in the affluent Dutch village of Velp. At the worst of times they were driven to a cramped cellar and huddled there as bullets and bombs thudded into the house.

I’ve been stuck at home for nine days now. Just nine days. It’s inconvenient, but I haven’t been driven to my basement. Most stores and restaurants are closed, and the few stores that remain open have run out of many products basic to human life. Well hello, welcome to the Netherlands of January 1945!

Shops in Velp had been receiving food and other goods sporadically at best. You could tell when something new had come into one of them because of the long lines of customers that assembled out of nowhere. If you saw a long line of people in front of a shop, you just queued up without hesitation. It didn’t matter what was being offered—odds were your family needed it.

But that January you didn’t need to queue up because the ruling Nazi government had halted all food shipments to the entire country. Since it was winter, little could be produced by local farms anyway—their livestock had been pilfered and fields were frozen. The Dutch were starving even in the eastern Netherlands where Audrey lived; farms dotted the countryside around Velp, but there just wasn’t enough of anything to go around.

Adding to the misery, typhus had broken out in Velp, and Audrey and everyone else received a series of three inoculations. V1 buzz bombs fell randomly on the village at night, and daily Allied fighter attacks sent villagers rushing back into their cellars. By the day news spread that a family member or neighbor had died; the nightmare went on and on.

Here in 2020 we aren’t driven inside by bullets and bombs. It’s germs that have us ducking for cover. But the result is the same: We are stuck at home and longing for days of freedom and stocked store shelves. The future is an unknown, and it’s reached a point where we fear for the lives of those we care about. Audrey once looked back on that last awful semester of World War II and told an interviewer, “In those days I used to say to myself, ‘If only this comes to an end, I will never grumble about anything again.’”

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenIt’s up to us what we do with this experience. Audrey the optimist took everything negative that happened to her in the war and flipped it into a positive. As a 15 year old she had almost starved, so she became the tireless champion of starving children. The Germans had been cruel, so she promoted love. She had witnessed war up close, so she preached peace.

Yes, we need Audrey Hepburn’s guidance today to smile that smile and tell us things aren’t so bad. She claimed on many occasions that gallows humor got the family through the war—how they’d giggle in the night as the battle raged. To the world of spring 2020, she would offer guidance that everything going on now will help each of us be a better person in the future. She’d tell us, ‘Just hang on. Get through this—you’ll see.’

7 comments

  1. Thank you, Robert. I have been thinking a lot about how this experience we are having is similar to Audrey’s experience in those final months of the war. We are at the mercy of an invisible enemy just as she sometimes was, between the bombs and airplanes falling on Velp. And, yes, she learned from a terrifying time and became a better person. A lesson for us all these days.

  2. Robert, thanks for putting things in perspective. What we are going through today is minimal at best to what Audrey went through. We have no reason to whine. As our mother often said, “This too shall pass!”

  3. This is a great post. I think everything needs a little perspective. Though things may be “hard” right now, it is nothing in comparison to the troubles Audrey faced during the war, or that our ancestors endured during the decade-long Great Depression. I really admire Audrey for taking her hard times and allowing them to make her a gentler, kinder, more decent human being.

    (I found this blog at random reading Old Hollywood posts, since during the pandemic I am watching old movies for fun. I’m glad. You write beautifully and I look forward to reading some of your books.)

  4. Hi, Robert! I’m just catching up with your posts after a long illness. As always, your writing has given me cheer and helped shine a light into my life. Audrey is such an inspiring person. I could only hope to have her strength of character, which seems to have been a shared trait amongst people of her generation who got through the depths of darkness in WW2. I’m sure that earlier generations were also required to draw on their inner fortitude during WW1, the horrific Spanish flu pandemic, and then the Great Depression. When you think about it, even the ‘60s were turbulent. It boggles the mind. Thank you for another wonderful piece. We will all get through these trying times, which seem to be saying…show me what you’re made of.

    1. Bonnie, I’m sorry to hear you were ill, so…..welcome back! I’m getting less hopeful of what we’re made of as this situation has gone on. Maybe that’s why I’m more comfortable living in the past (when people were made of sterner stuff).

      1. Thank you, Robert! I’m doing much better now. Although I’m trying my best to stay positive about the world as it is these days, like you, there are times when I just want to go back to an earlier, simpler time. So, if you find a time machine somewhere, let me know!

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