It’s no surprise to anyone reading here that I love Audrey Hepburn. During the Second World War she lived with her Dutch mother in and around Arnhem here in The Netherlands and last year I even made a little pilgrimage to see where she had lived exactly during the war. I also learned then that a book had just been published about those years in Audrey’s life, called “Dutch Girl : Audrey Hepburn and World War II” written by Robert Matzen. I bought it and it’s been laying around here for months, waiting to be read. Last week I finally did.
Audrey is important to me and reading this book was important to me, hence this long post about the book that in the end left me with very mixed feelings. Let me start with what I liked about the book.
The book gave me answers to my timeline questions I had about when Audrey lived where. She moved to the Sickeszlaan in Arnhem in December of 1939 (that much I knew), then 3 months later moved to apartments in the center of Arnhem at the Jansbinnensingel and was living there when the German invasion of The Netherlands happened in May 1940. Soon after August of 1942 she moved to the nearby town of Velp, where her grandfather and aunt lived, and stayed there till the end of the war in May 1945.
I also liked that the book gave more of a background to Audrey’s family. Her father was out of her life when she was young, so it centers around her mother, her aunts and her grandfather, who is a baron but not rich. Her half brothers Alex and Ian, born to her mother during her first marriage, are also mentioned and how one was sent away for forced labour in Berlin and the other had to go into hiding to escape that same fate…
… and there’s a big section on her aunt’s husband, Otto van Limburg Stirum who had been a prosecuting attorney but wouldn’t cooperate with the Nazis and was fired. He was later arrested and shot to death as an example and in retalliation to resistance activities that he had been no part of.
Audrey’s mother’s Nazi sympathies were also examined and it turned out they weren’t just sympathies. She wrote glowingly in two newspaper articles in the mid 1930s about Nazism and these sympathies continued till at least 1941.
Even after reading this, I’m not sure whether Ella really turned away from Nazism or whether, because of the war, it was more prudent to become anti-Nazi. Maybe she turned away from Nazism after the execution of her brother-in-law in August of 1942, after which she and Audrey moved from Arnhem to Velp to be with Ella’s father and newly widowed sister. Fact is that she did have a Nazi boyfriend at the beginning of the invasion and that Audrey did do dance recitals in Arnhem for Nazi audiences organized by her mother.
Audrey’s own brief mentions in various interviews about working for the resistance are also examined. There was an exhibition in 2016 at the Airborne museum near Arnhem about Audrey and, leading up to that, research had been done about claims that Audrey had worked for the resistance. If you read Dutch (or you could put it through Google Translate if you’re interested), there’s an article from 2016 which says that “Audrey Hepburn was not a resistance hero” as no evidence whatsoever was found for that in documents and archives. This book refutes that, due to interviews held with the children of Dutch resistance workers in Velp, where her activities were said to have taken place. She did dance to raise money for resistance activites when she lived in Velp and she did run errands for the nearby hospital which housed the resistance and she was in especially close contact with Dr. Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft, who ran many resistance operations, and his children. Or so the author says from interviews he held.
I also appreciated reading more about the shelling and fighting Velp experienced at the end of the war, how close to where Audrey lived everything happened, how during the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 (of a “bridge too far” fame) hopes for liberation were dashed, how everyone in Velp took in refugees from Arnhem as the city was evacuated including Audrey’s family, how for a short period an airman was hidden in Audrey’s house (according to an interview with Audrey’s younger son). The last winter of the war was described, the famous “Hunger Winter”, and in some descriptions I also recognized stories my mother has told me of that time. Of how cold it was, about using tulip bulbs for food, there being no heat and every scrap of wood that could be found would be used for heating, how the V1 bombs sounded overhead and when the noise stopped suddenly, you knew it was dropping. Some of these things were brief Audrey quotes, most of the descriptions were of other eyewitness accounts in Velp which I found valuable to read. So yes, I did get a much better picture of what Audrey’s life probably had been like during the war.
Next to the positives of the book there were also some huge downsides for me. In hindsight, reading the jacket text on the author should have warned me, where it said Robert Matzen combined “airtight research with spellbinding narrative.” While reading the book I often wondered whether he was trying to write a novel based on facts and interviews or whether this was a proper study he was publishing. I had hoped for the latter.
I started to question the “airtight research” on page 3 where he referenced the 1935 Leni Riefenstahl Nazi Parteitag propaganda film as Triumph des Willen, without the ‘s’ at the end (it should be Willens). I figured maybe the editors had just missed a spelling mistake. A little further on he referenced the Dutch Heineken family (of the beer fame) as Heinekin. I mean, come on, the beer is so famous, can’t you even spell the name right? Such little mistakes started to annoy me. In an attempt to sound Dutch he said that Audrey had moved to “Arnhem Centraal”. That doesn’t sound right. Arnhem Centraal is what you would call the central train station. If he had said “Arnhem centrum”, that would have been correct. He references the Dutch beach town of Noordwijk as being “just north of Rotterdam”, which in US terms of distance might be OK, but in actuality it would have been far more accurate describing Noordwijk as just north of Leiden (or even north of The Hague if you want to reference a large city). Somewhere in the text he writes something about the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas and conjugates the name as “Sinter’s bag of toys and candy.” I have never heard it conjugated as “Sinter’s” before, “Sint’s” would be accurate.
I also questioned the Dutch researcher he used. There is this section in the book about Audrey’s mother, Baroness van Heemstra, seeking lodging via an ad in a newspaper in The Hague in 1944. There is discussion on why she would pick The Hague, some possible old connections are mentioned and then this quote comes along from the Dutch researcher who helped with the book:
“When you enter the name ‘Van Heemstra’ in the digital pedigree system of the [municipal] archive, about 157 results pop up. I don’t know how they are exactly related to the baron or Ella, but is shows there have always been some connections between the city and this noble family.“
Just because there are Van Heemstras in Den Haag doesn’t mean there is a direct family connection and even if there is, it’s quite a jump to think Ella wanted to move there because of them. I have direct cousins with my surname that I do not know at all. If I were her, I would have put far more research into that. So, with this statement even the Dutch researcher’s credibility was weakened for me.
I know these are just tiny details and why get worked up over those? But then, if these small, common details aren’t correct, what liberties were taken with facts that I know nothing of? So, throughout the whole book I was questioning this so-called “airtight” research.
In addition to my qualms about details I also got annoyed with the huge amount of embellishment in the text. Each section of the book starts with a section in cursive. Those sections take a part of Audrey’s later life and reference back to her war years. The author uses quotes from interviews and newspaper articles to paint a certain picture and because of the cursive you take it as a fictionalized description based on actual events. I was fine with those. The author, however, does this in the whole text as well. He is constantly trying to put himself in Audrey’s place and writing from her viewpoint, embellishing what he thinks happened but presenting it as fact. I sometimes felt he was quick to jump to certain conclusions. It’s as if he’s writing a novel at times. For instance, during a bombing when the family hides in the cellar…
“The air raid siren had fallen silent and no none so much as breathed. All that could be heard now were aircraft motors and the occasional purring of German-made Spandau machine guns pointed skyward. Did the men in the planes know about the radio station upstairs? Would they go after that? There! There! The whistle of falling bombs! The four van Heemstras could not but cover heads with arms and pray, Onze Vader die in de hemel zijt…“
How does he know these thoughts and what they did or didn’t pray in the cellar? And in another section he writes this after a bombing:
“They stepped outside into daylight. While the Baron surveyed the latest bullet holes and shrapnel damage to the structure and property, Audrey looked about her. Down the street toward the center of the village. a building blazed. It was somewhere around Thiele’s book shop – perhaps the shop itself. The other way, up the street toward the north, one house on each side of the street was burning, and farther up, somewhere around the intersection with Ringallee, a building was fully engulfed with black smoke billowing skyward.”
How, I wondered, did he know that Audrey and her grandfather saw all this at that exact point in time? I turned to the notes and there it said,
“The picture I painted on 14 April as Audrey and the baron ventured outside is drawn from what was known to be going on that day. I can’t say for certain that Audrey stood on the street and looked left and right, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that she did, and if she did, that is precisely what she would have seen – based also on my many visits to the spot.”
I guess that really sums up the book of me – it’s a book full of painted pictures and jumping to conclusions, based on facts and interviews, but with so many thoughts and feelings added by the author. These two quotes are just small examples of what the book does on every page! Admittedly, most of those thoughts and feelings could be true, and Audrey has often said how much the war affected her, but I wished that the author had distinguished within the text itself what was fact and what was his own embellishment. I guess making those distinctions would have made the text not as literary but I would have trusted it more.
And finally, the source listing left much to be desired. Sure, there is a nice summing up of literature, but I would have liked more details on the interviews (who he spoke to, when, where, what was discussed?) and which archive sources he used. Were there no more details to be found as to what was happening with her brothers (maybe in letters or interviews with the brothers’ children) or even what their perspectives had been on their mother or baby sister Audrey? Did he have contact with the researchers from 2016 who said Audrey was not a documented resistance worker? I’m sure if I really took the time I could form a million more questions. So much was left open and not “airtight” to me.
The book has too many holes in it for me to be able to take it as the whole truth about Audrey’s life during the war. I’m sure large portions are accurate but I can’t unquestioningly trust it. The author completely emulates Audrey and thereby the book loses all sense of objectivity to me. I love Audrey Hepburn, I love seeing pictures of her youth…
… I love hearing about the context of her family, I love when positive and good things are said about her, but I also want the truth and I’m not sure I really get that here. In the end, this is an interesting book that writes in embellished fashion about what Audrey did and what Audrey possibly could have experienced during World War II.
I don’t regret reading the book but I did close it with a whole bag of mixed feelings. In the end I think I would have preferred just reading interview transcripts (from what Audrey has said herself in interviews, from what her sons said, from the interviews Robert Matzen held) with added known archival and literature references to give some context. For me that would have painted a far more accurate and trustworthy picture than this book did with all it’s embellishments