27 January 2023

Audrey Hepburn’s brave
role during the Holocaust and
her father’s life in Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January 2023). Over the past few days, the World Jewish Congress has drawn attention to the role of Audrey Hepburn as a teenager living in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, and how she helped the Dutch Resistance and saved Jewish lives during World War II.

Audrey Hepburn died away 30 years ago this month, on 20 January 1993. She starred in many memorable roles, from Manhattan socialite Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964). The 1953 classic Roman Holiday — in which she played Princess Ann, a royal exploring the Eternal City with Gregory Peck — earned her an Academy Award. She is one of the few stars to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award.

Yet few people know that was also a Dutch aristocrat, raised by parents with controversial political sympathies, who aided resistance to the Nazis while enduring tragedy and starvation.

In his biography, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, the author Robert Matzen reveals his discoveries about Audrey Hepburn’s life growing up in the Netherlands during World War II, and how her parents’ Nazi connections haunted her for the rest of her life.

With meticulous research, he tells the story of her heroic efforts during World War II, and how those difficult years led her to a life of humanitarian service. During that time, she was also becoming a prima ballerina on her way to Hollywood and stardom.

Robert Matzen’s book is based on research in the Netherlands, where he had access archives, interviewed people with war-time memories of Hepburn, unearthed rare photographs, documents and mementoes, and visited Arnhem, where she lived there during World War II.

Her Dutch mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, met Hitler in the 1930s and wrote admiringly about him in British fascist publications. She changed her mind during the brutal Nazi occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945. Her father, Joseph Ruston, ended up in jailed because of his Nazi sympathies.

The baroness aided the Dutch Resistance after Hepburn’s uncle, Otto Ernst Gelder, Count van Limburg Stirum, was executed by the Nazis. After the execution of her uncle, Audrey and her mother relocated from Arnhem to the village of Velp five km away and heard hear the destruction of their former hometown during the 1944 Allied defeat in the battles of Arnhem and Oosterbeek.

Audrey Hepburn volunteered for the resistance, aided Jews in hiding, and raised funds through dancing to keep them safe. Despite everything, fewer than 25 per cent of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust.

Audrey Hepburn was invited in 1958 to play Anne Frank in the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank. But she found the subject too close to home and turned it down, although she met Otto Frank. Two decades later, in 1976, she turned a role in A Bridge Too Far.

Hepburn’s war years explain her later work as a UNICEF ambassador working with children affected by war.

Audrey Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston on 4 May 1929. Her family had aristocratic connections on both sides. Her Dutch grandfather, Baron van Heemstra, was a former governor of the South American colony of Surinam and a former mayor of Arnhem. Her English father claimed a royal descent from James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th-century.

Young Audrey, or Adriaantje as she was known in her family, grew up between Belgium, England and the Netherlands. Her parents visited Germany with Sir Oswald Mosley and other British fascists, and met Hitler in Munich in 1935.

Ella returned to Germany for the Nazi Party Congress later that year and praised Hitler in British fascist publications. She continued supporting the Nazis after they occupied the Netherlands. Ironically, Hepburn’s ballet teacher, Winja Marova, was Jewish and hid her identity from the occupiers.

The Nazis arrested her brother-in-law, Hepburn’s uncle Otto, a court prosecutor, and he was executed on 15 August 1942 in a mass killing with another relative, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.

Otto’s execution was a turning point and shook the family to the core. Ella relocated with Audrey to Velp, where they lived with Audrey’s grandfather, Baron van Heemstra, and Otto’s widow, Meisje. There the family joined the resistance. The refusal to join a Nazi artists’ committee ending Audrey Hepburn’s burgeoning dance career.

In Velp, Audrey assisted Dr Hendrik Visser ’t Hooft, who helped shelter hundreds of Jews. She brought messages to families protecting Jews. She danced to raise money for the resistance and to feed Jews in hiding.

In an unexpected development, when Audrey Hepburn and her mother lived in Amsterdam after liberation, their fellow lodger was the editor working on publishing the Diary of Anne Frank. Audrey and Anne were born less than five months apart in 1929, but Anne Frank was apprehended in 1944 and died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Audrey Hepburn would later describe Anne Frank as a soul sister.

‘I believe Audrey felt survivor’s guilt,’ Robert Matzen says. ‘She survived. Anne Frank did not.’

Eventually, she left with her mother for England, where Audrey Hepburn found success not through ballet but in film. In time, she came to terms with her past. Years after becoming a household name, she took part in public readings of The Diary of Anne Frank and became a Unicef ambassador.

Audrey Hepburn was born in Belgium, spent the war years in occupied Holland, she sounded English and her first acting roles were in British films, became a Hollywood success, and had a second international career as a Unicef ambassador and a humanitarian campaigner. Yet, there was also an Irish element in her life story too.

Her father, Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, was born Joseph Ruston in Bohemia, Austria-Hungary, in 1889 to an English father and his German wife, Catherina Wels.

He was an Englishman living in Belgium when his daughter was born in 1929. In the years before World War II, he expressed unqualified enthusiasm for Hitler. He left Audrey and her mother in 1939. After detention in the Isle of Man, made his way to Dublin where, assisted by the Carmelite order, he found lucrative work in the insurance industry.

Joseph Hepburn-Ruston became friends with the Guinness family and Sir Alfred Beit, the art collector and philanthropist. He and his third wife, the model Fidelma Walshe, more than 30 years his junior, were living near Merrion Square, Dublin, when Audrey first reconnected with him in the early 1960s.

She tracked down Joseph with the help of the Red Cross. A meeting was arranged in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, in 1964. But it was not the occasion she had hoped for. When Joseph saw Audrey, he made no move towards her. She took the initiative, stepping forward to hug him. She soon realised that the man she had pined for as a child was distant and emotionally detached. They did not speak for another 20 years.

He lived in Sydenham Road Dublin for over 35 years. His daughter supported him financially until he died in Baggot Street Hospital at the age of 91 on 16 October 1980. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross. Audrey did not go to her father’s funeral, but returned to Dublin in 1988.

Audrey Hepburn died in Switzerland 30 years ago this month on 20 January 1993.

Shabbat Shalom

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