In “Dutch Girl,” Robert Matzen describes how the young Audrey Hepburn survived both famine and fighting in World War II. But what brings this history home for me personally is the connection with a third woman, less well-known, who also lived in Holland during those times. I feel a special interest in her story since she happens to live on my street in Virginia.
Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, by Robert Matzen (GoodKnight Books, 2019).
Those of us with parents or grandparents who lived through World War II know that they tended to shy away from talking about their experiences—either from modesty or because the memories were too painful. This was true even of beloved film star Audrey Hepburn, whose early years in Nazi-occupied Holland are the subject of Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen. It’s an untold story with strong echoes of that other celebrated “Dutch girl” of World War II, Anne Frank, who was the same age as Audrey. (Both women would have turned ninety this year.) But what brings this history home for me personally is the connection with a third woman, less well-known, who also lived in Holland during those times. I feel a special interest in her story since she happens to live on my street in Virginia.
My neighbor Stien (short for Christina) Vijn van Egmond was born on July 30, 1928; Audrey Hepburn on May 4, 1929, Anne Frank on June 12, 1929. Although they never knew each other, all three women shared similar experiences in Holland during the war. Having easy access to Stien’s stories is a blessing for me. Her memories of those years remain vivid and she is eager to share them with anyone who cares to listen. I sat down with her recently to discuss Matzen’s book, which she had mysteriously received in the mail from an unknown recipient around Easter time. She proceeded to read the book slowly and meticulously, and much of what she read brought back a flood of memories.
The day the Nazis marched into Holland, May 10, 1940, was “the blackest day in the history of the country,” Matzen writes. Despite the country’s neutrality, and despite assurances that Hitler would politely bypass Holland on his way to conquering France and Belgium, the Dutch suddenly found the Germans in their backyards. Audrey lived in the eastern Dutch town of Arnhem, which eventually became the site of intense fighting toward the end of the war alongside the nearby Battle of the Bulge. Stien, living in the town of Diemen just outside Amsterdam, saw comparatively little of the actual invasion and no fighting at all. Yet she too was affected in deep ways.
The reality of the occupation soon hit home for both young girls. Audrey suddenly found that her arithmetic problems at school had Nazi propaganda in them, and American movies at the local cinema were replaced with German ones. For Stien, the German presence was inescapable on the radio stations, which they had completely taken over. The Dutch royal family had decamped to London and set up Radio Oranje (named for the House of Orange) over the BBC to channel information from the Allies to the occupied people of Holland. The Nazis countered by issuing a “Measure for the Protection of the Dutch Population Against Untrue Information.” Their official station broadcast classics of German music—Beethoven and Brahms, which Stien always enjoyed—alongside politically correct news bulletins. Anyone caught listening to Radio Oranje might pay with his life; yet many Dutch continued to listen, with volume low and curtains drawn.
Audrey was in an awkward position since her mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, had been a Nazi sympathizer—a sin for which she atoned during the war through charitable work for the Resistance. According to Matzen, around ten percent of the Dutch openly supported the German occupiers. Many were no doubt taken in by the Nazis’ promotion of a “Germanic brotherhood” of all Teutonic-speaking peoples. Although Hollanders may traditionally have looked toward Belgium, France, or England, the Nazis encouraged them to switch their prime allegiance to Germany.
And for a while it seemed plausible. The Germans handily rebuilt the bridges in Arnhem, and Hitler respected the Dutch character and warrior traditions. To many Hollanders it seemed as if life under the Nazis might not be so bad. Stien’s girlhood friend and next door neighbor Wiesje van Dalen had parents who were known Nazi collaborators (the whole family disappeared in the last year of the war).
Persecution and Resistance
On the other hand, enemies of the regime could be dealt with swiftly. Matzen tells of how Audrey’s favorite uncle Otto, a member of the Dutch nobility, found himself arrested one day and transported to a former Catholic seminary that the Nazis had converted into a sort of genteel prison. The regime hoped by holding prominent Dutch citizens as hostages to scare the Resistance. Otto passed his days reading in the monastic garden, participating in political and religious debates, football matches, and gardening. He was allowed to receive gifts of food and clothing from his family—on the surface, a comfortable life. Yet if one Resistance bomb went off in Holland the Nazis might pick one of the men as a scapegoat.
Early one morning, after the Resistance had carried out act of sabotage, Otto and four of his companions were driven to a secluded spot in the forest, ordered to dig their own graves, and summarily shot. Even though Audrey did not witness it, it was an episode of the war she could never forget.
Stien’s Uncle George, who worked in the underground movement, met a similar if more pathetic fate. The Nazis nabbed him stealing one of their bicycles and, as punishment, drove him to an abandoned building in Amsterdam, threw him in the basement and locked the door. He presumably died there. Stien learned his story from her aunt, a Catholic nun, who kept it secret from everybody else.
When it came to Resistance exploits, no one was more celebrated in Stien’s hometown than Piet Saan.
Outwardly a successful garage and repair shop owner, in off-hours Saan ran the local underground movement. One of his methods to save local Jewish residents from deportation was to carefully roll them in carpets, load them onto his black pickup trucks (which were furnished with plenty of hidden firearms) and drive them to the nearby country town of Watergraafsmeer for hiding. Saan was, years later, awarded a prize for bravery by Queen Beatrix of Holland. For the duration of the war, many a citizen of Diemen thrilled to see him driving around town delivering oriental carpets.
Another memorable sight for Stien were the Allied planes (including British Spitfires) flying over the area. Also, the anti-aircraft artillery standing on the street corner directly opposite her father’s grocery that was frequently shooting the planes down. A pulsating siren was a signal to the citizens of Diemen that an Allied plane had been spotted and that they should keep away from falling shrapnel, which frequently hit houses or disintegrated in the air because of its extreme heat.
Audrey did her part in this arena by helping downed Allied bomber pilots who landed outside her town, bringing them food and spiriting them away to safety. This work was done for a local doctor affiliated with the underground, with whom Audrey volunteered. Matzen tells a striking anecdote of a time when, after completing one of her aid missions, Audrey found German police approaching her across the field. Thinking quick, the fifteen-year-old began picking flowers and innocently offered a bunch to the SS men.
The razzia, a Nazi roundup of men to work in German factories, was a constant menace to Dutch males between sixteen and forty years of age. Stien’s father was 41 but appeared younger, so he could not be sure of immunity. In a scene reminiscent of Anne Frank’s diary, a pair of German soldiers with bayonets showed up one night at the Vijns’ front door and barked to Stien’s 8-year-old brother, Wo ist dein vater? As Mr. Vijn had instructed, Jan replied that his father had gone out to a farm to get food for his grocery. In reality he was hidden between the floor boards of the house. For years afterwords the Vijns wondered, what if the boy had suddenly gotten scared and told the truth?
Another razzia occurred on Sunday morning as Mass was being celebrated at St. Peter’s in Chains in Diemen, where the Vijns worshiped. An altar boy, whose parents were Resistance fighters, ran into the sanctuary and interrupted the priest’s rite to whisper that the Nazis were rolling into town for the razzia. Just in time: The priest faced the people and told them the news, and the younger men took to the roads and fled.
The Catholic Church in Holland was dead set against the Nazi regime and acted on its convictions, Stien affirms. Matzen tells us that three clergymen, pillars of the community in her town of Velp (where she and her mother moved after their time in Arnhem) were targeted for extinction. Two of the town’s Catholic priests and one Reformed pastor were arrested and sent to concentration camps—a sign, if there ever was one, that the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants were a thing of the past.
There were some hairbreadth escape stories. Stien recalls Pieter de Wildt, a musician and conductor caught in the razzia. De Wildt managed to jump from the moving train taking him to Germany and walk surreptitiously back to Holland, where his wife was shocked to find him back at their front door at 4:00 AM. De Wildt remained in hiding for the rest of the war and resumed his music-making after to resounding success.
The artistic life became a refuge for Stien and especially for Audrey. Stien pleasantly recalls the ballroom dancing lessons she took, even though there was no money for either dancing shoes or ball costumes. Audrey fell in love with the ballet at the age of eleven, when she enrolled in lessons with a celebrated teacher in Arnhem. The dance helped the normally reserved girl blossom. For the remainder of the war she participated avidly in zwarte avonden, or black evenings—underground concerts to raise money for the Dutch Resistance. Audrey’s mother redeemed her past bad judgments by hosting some of these evenings at the family home—a risky affair, since they were easily discoverable by the Nazis and had to be guarded outside.
Yet dancing became impossible as winter descended and food became scarce, most of it having been diverted to Germany. First there was the rationing: butter, margarine, fats, cream. Then, most painfully for the bakery-loving Dutch, bread. (Stien recalls the poor stuff they had to make do with; it looked superficially like wheat bread but tasted like sawdust.) Food coupons could be obtained but were of little use, since so little food was available. During the brutal “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, all import and export of food had ceased, heat and electricity were shut down—this during one of the coldest Dutch winters on record—and rations were down to a barely survivable minimum.
The lack of milk proved fatal to Stien’s baby sister, Cecilia, who died of malnutrition that winter. Another sister, Martha, died the year after the war from health complications. They were only two of over 20,000 Hollanders who perished.
The situation was eased only in April 1945, when the Germans allowed the Allies to drop food parcels over Holland—the action had been held up interminably by red tape. But the Hunger Winter had long-lasting effects on its victims; Audrey suffered from excessive thinness, anemia, and respiratory illnesses for years, and developed a nervous smoking habit. Stien, on the eve of her wedding in 1951, had still not fully recovered her weight.
Hunger was compounded with the threat of violence for the people of Arnhem and Velp, which in the final stretch of the war became a regular shooting gallery as Allied bombs pounded the diminishing German forces. In the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, the British and Americans attempted to beat back the Germans from Holland by seizing the city’s bridges. Hunkered down in their house, parts of which were continually being shot away, Audrey’s family awaited the Liberation that was sure to come—if they weren’t killed first.
As we well know, Audrey Hepburn survived both famine and fighting. After the war she switched from ballet to acting, went to Hollywood, and became famous for such effervescent films as Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Matzen recounts that when director George Stevens approached her in 1958 to play the title role in his film adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank—Anne’s father Otto also wanted her to play the part—she declined; the story struck to close to home, and the memories were too distressing. Her characters would continue to reflect her aristocratic background more than the wartime experiences that she modestly lay aside.
Stien married in 1951 and moved to the United States, lived on a farm in Iowa for several years, raised nine children, and eventually moved to Alexandria, Virginia (just outside of Washington, D.C) where she now lives. Much like that fictional Dutchman Rip Van Winkle, she enjoys acting as an elder raconteur and a reminder of former times and places.
Audrey said long after the war: “After living the long months and years under the Germans, you dreamed what would happen if you ever got out. You swore you would never complain about anything again.” Audrey Hepburn’s story, told with suspenseful flair by Robert Matzen, inspires gratitude for our blessings of freedom and peace. Yet it strikes me that we would do well to seek out similar stories from ordinary people in our communities, like Stien van Egmond, whom films and books will never celebrate.
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The featured image combines a photograph of Stien van Egmond provided by the author with a photograph of Audrey Hepburn that is in the public domain, and which appears here courtesy of Wikipedia.