This deeply fascinating and moving book is a must-read for Audrey Hepburn fans wishing to understand more about the war helped to shape her into the person that she was.
As a huge Audrey Hepburn fan, I have read countless of biographies about her rise to fame and of course her humanitarian work for UNICEF. However, what I have tended to notice is how much of her early childhood and experiences of World War II is over looked – which is why this is such a revelatory read.
Written and researched with meticulous attention to detail, Robert Matzen really gets to the heart of what life was like for Audrey, her family and for all the Dutch people living in Velp and the surrounding areas.
The book starts by delving deep into the history of the Van Heemstra’s (Audrey’s family on her mother Ella’s side), which in itself helps build up a strong foundation of Audrey’s life in detail that is so rarely covered. In particular discovering more about her mother and how initially she was fascinated by Hitler and his ideals – even meeting him on one occasion. It is made clear throughout that Ella would later hide just how fascinated she was with Hitler to protect her increasingly famous daughter’s career throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s and beyond – something that Audrey would never talk about.
Through the way in which it has been written, this is a deeply moving and personal account that makes you feel as though you are experiencing the war through her eyes. Filled with interviews with Audrey as well as those who lived in Velp and the areas surrounding it, the reader is given a vivid and horrific insight into just how bad the war was for the Dutch. The way in which the sounds and sights are described by Matzen really capture the scale and horror of what people lived through. The final winter in which people were starving due to the lack of food available is particularly disturbing and shocking to read about.
In one particularly moving section, the author describes how Audrey’s uncle Otto (who was a respected judge) was taken away from his family and held by the Nazis as a ‘death candidate’ to try and prevent actions from the resistance. Sadly, he and four others were executed mere months later. Matzen writes with great sympathy and insight – with the reader really getting a sense he wanted to the subject justice.
But there are glimmers of light – in particular reading about Audrey’s love of dance and the performances that she took part in. Although it is well known she wanted to be a dancer it’s really lovely to hear in her own words and those of others – just how much she enjoyed it and was able to distract herself for moments away from the war. Yet, also hearing about her compassion and the work that she put into helping the resistance – reveal the qualities that people were later to admire in her as an actress and ambassador for UNICEF.
Devotion, compassion, strength of mind and hard working were all qualities of the young Dutch girl that were built up during World War II – qualities that she would never forget. In particular reading about how she supported a young boy after he found out about the death of his mother can be mirrored in the way she would tend children when out on trips to war torn countries as a UNICEF ambassador. The author ensures that the way in which the war impacted Audrey’s young mind and character can be seen in her actions when she became famous.
It is a supremely balanced book that vividly captures one young Dutch girl’s experiences of war, while paying tribute to the strength of the Dutch people as a whole given what the Nazis put them through during the years of occupation. Whether you are a fan of Audrey Hepburn or interested in World War II history, this is a book that does not fail to impress or move the reader.
By Emma Clarendon
Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II is available to buy now.