Soul Sisters:

Anne Frank and Audrey Hepburn


Jeffrey Meyers


   The glamorous, famous and wealthy actress Audrey Hepburn, who died in her luxurious Swiss mansion in 1993, would seem to have nothing in common with Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who died obscurely in a Nazi death camp in 1945. But they were born less than six weeks apart, in May and June 1929: Anne in Frankfurt, Audrey in Brussels. They spent their traumatic childhoods, separated by sixty miles between Amsterdam and Arnhem, in Nazi-occupied Holland. Unlike Anne, Audrey survived the war and went on to receive the adulation that Anne had dreamed of and only acquired after her death.
   Anne’s German father, Otto Frank, who’d been an officer in World War I, foresaw the Nazi threat to the Jews. In the fall of 1933, after Hitler took power, he left Frankfurt for Amsterdam where he had business interests. But he did not foresee the German invasion of Holland, which had been neutral in World War I and in 1918 had provided refuge for the deposed German Kaiser. Despite being trapped in Holland, Otto hoped to keep his family safe. He bought furnishings, clothing and food for the 100-square-foot Secret Annex. It was above his jam-producing business on the main floor, high over the street but psychologically underground. Otto took his family into hiding, along with three friends, when his older daughter Margot was suddenly ordered to work in a German labor camp. His company continued to operate during the war, run by gentile employees who kept the family supplied with news, books and food. The family stayed together but had no way to escape. If detected, they would all be arrested. Otto’s desperate attempts to get life-saving visas had all been rejected. If Anne had escaped to America there would have been no Diary, but she was brilliantly talented and would certainly have written more mature work.
  Anne and Audrey, who spent the war years in Holland from the age of ten to fifteen, had striking similarities in experience and character. If Audrey had been Jewish, she would have suffered the same fate as her soul sister. Anne wanted to be a great writer, Audrey trained for years to be a great ballerina. Eager for distractions in her crowded and claustrophobic space, Anne wrote: “I’m currently going through a dance and ballet craze and am diligently practicing my dance steps every evening. I’ve made an ultra-modern dance costume out of a lacy lavender slip… . I’ve tried to turn my tennis shoes into ballet slippers, but with no success.” In the same makeshift way, Audrey’s dance friend said, “we used to wear ballet shoes that were like wooden shoes—very heavy. Audrey was quite ingenious. She used to make tights from Ace bandages and dye them by soaking them in water with red crepe paper.” Anne decorated the narrow walls of her bedroom with pin-ups of movie stars. If Audrey had been a star in the 1940s, her photo would have joined Anne’s collection.
  Both girls, extremely pretty and thin, nearly starved during the “hunger-winter” of 1944-45. Anne sometimes ate only boiled lettuce and rotted potatoes. Audrey subsisted on watery soup, green bread made from peas and cooked grass with nettles. They were terrified and in danger when the British, fighting toward Germany, bombed their cities in 1944. Anne hid with her family and friends, Audrey helped hide a downed British paratrooper, both were afraid they would be discovered and shot.
  Anne recorded that the Nazis exacted retribution for resistance: “leading citizens—innocent people—are taken prisoner to await their execution. If the Gestapo can’t find the saboteur, they simply grab five hostages and line them up against the wall.” Audrey’s Uncle Otto, one of five distinguished hostages, was actually shot on August 15,1942 in retaliation for Dutch Underground attacks on Nazi soldiers. She once was forced to see a horrific incident that was very like the execution of her uncle: “I did once witness some men set against the wall and shot for some kind of reprisal. They used to make people stop.” They couldn’t walk on and had to watch the murder.
  Anne and Audrey were extrovert, clever and resourceful, attractive, gifted and eager for fame. They worried about their poor food, tattered clothing and physical appearance. They hid from oppressive authority yet affirmed their independent existence. In the war years they began as precocious children, but developed rapidly and reached a new self-awareness. They felt hopeless passivity and psychological anguish, uncertainty and fear, and alternated uneasily between optimism and despair. Deprived of normal childhoods, they were forced into maturity by violent events. Their emotional and intellectual progress was closely connected to contemporary history and the long years of war.
  Otto Frank, the first editor of Anne’s Diary of a Young Girl (1947), sanitized the text and obscured Anne’s adolescence and puberty by cutting out all her detailed sexual descriptions in the first, expurgated edition. Anne, who felt a surge of sexual awakening and physical desire, vividly recalls her developing breasts and strangely gratifying periods, discovering the truth (by reading and talking) about sexual organs and intercourse. She fell in love with the teenaged boy who was also in hiding in the Secret Annex and shared sexual secrets with him. Audrey, concentrating on ballet and survival, had no sex life in those years and later vicariously experienced those turbulent emotions when she read the Diary.
  Anne hid in the Secret Annex from the age of thirteen to fifteen, July 1942 to August 4,1944, when her family was betrayed by a Dutch informer. The main suspect was her father’s warehouseman, the sinister thief Willem van Maaren. She was arrested by an Austrian SS sergeant and three Dutch Security Policemen, and spent the next month in Westerbork, a holding camp in northeast Holland for Jews destined for extermination in Poland. In Auschwitz Anne survived the initial selection for the gas chamber and was reprieved for slave labor. As the Russian army raced toward the camp, the Nazis tried to destroy all the evidence of extermination and blew up the gas chambers and crematoria. On October 28 Anne and Margot, separated from their parents, were moved west to Bergen-Belsen near Hannover, Germany, where the survivors of Auschwitz were killed.
  Anne’s Diary ended on August 1, 1944, three days before her arrest. Other sources provide the details of the horrific, almost unbearable extinction of her life. Emaciated and ragged, tormented by fleas and lice, ulcerated and febrile, the frail and sensitive child saw her sister die. Believing her parents were dead, though Otto was saved by a doctor, she lost her will to live. She died in March 1945 of typhus, an infectious disease carried by lice, a more prolonged and even more agonizing death than by cyanide gas.
  It’s amazing that the frail and starved Anne lived for as long as six months in two death camps. Had she been able to hide for only one month longer, Hitler’s best-known victim might have survived the war. After hiding in Amsterdam for 25 months, she was arrested nine months before the liberation of Holland. On September 3 she was loaded on the very last train from Holland to Auschwitz. In November 1944 she was transferred from Poland to Bergen-Belsen, two months before the Russian liberation of Auschwitz. She died in March 1945 only one month before the British liberated Bergen-Belsen.
  The Dutch have fully exploited Anne’s tragedy, and the Anne Frank House, visited by millions of people, is now the second most popular tourist attraction (after the Rijksmuseum) in Amsterdam. But anti-Semitism was virulent in wartime Holland, whose government actively assisted the Nazis in killing the Jews. The Dutch Commandant at Westerbork was a sadist who tortured the Jews. Ian Buruma writes that 98,000 Dutch Jews, “75 per cent of Jews in the Netherlands, were taken away to be murdered, a higher percentage than anywhere else in Western Europe.” In nearby Denmark by contrast, when the people and government actively resisted Nazi brutality, there were no mass arrests and deportations to extermination camps, and only 120 Danish Jews died. On May 4, 1944, Anne fiercely expressed the major theme of her Diary: “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill.”


  Audrey’s English father Joseph Hepburn-Ruston worked for Maclaine and Watson, tin merchants in Brussels, where she was born on May 14, 1929. Both girls adored their fathers. Otto, an ideal father, did all he could to save his wife and daughters, and was the only family member to survive the death camps. Joseph abandoned his family when Audrey was six and returned to England. She mourned his disappearance and called it “the most traumatic event in my life, a tragedy from which I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. I worshiped him and missed him terribly from the day he disappeared.” It’s significant, perhaps, that many of her leading men in movies—Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison and, metaphorically, God the Father in The Nun’s Story—were older father figures.
  Audrey’s parents were both fanatically pro-Nazi. Her mother, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra, whose family wealth came from trading in the Dutch East Indies, had two sons by her first marriage. She was honored by a personal interview with Hitler in Munich in May 1935. A poor judge of his character, she wrote about her ecstatic experience in the newspaper of the British Union of Fascists: “Hitler’s deep blue eyes could have bored through me, such was their power. He was so pale, so composed, as he smiled that enigmatic smile, full of humility.” Audrey’s father, considered a traitor, was arrested in June 1940, and spent the rest of the war in London prisons and detention camps on the Isle of Man. He was released in April 1945 and moved to Ireland, which had been neutral in the war.
  The slender, delicate Audrey was the complete physical opposite of the typical blond, blue-eyed and hefty Dutch woman. She was cared for by nannies and educated by private tutors on the cloistered family estate. An English citizen, she was sent to boarding school in England in 1934, but her mother, thinking that Arnhem would be safer than London, brought her home when the war broke out in September 1939. For the same reason, Otto Frank brought his family from Germany to Holland.
  Audrey had taken dance lessons throughout her childhood. In July 1941, still influenced by her mother and mad to dance, the twelve-year-old began to perform publicly for German soldiers in Arnhem. In December she appeared onstage with her two older half-brothers for a Nazi-sponsored Mozart celebration. She later, quite understandably, deleted these episodes from her resumé.
  But the young and impressionable Audrey had the courage to reject her parents’ pro-Nazi beliefs and soon worked actively for the Dutch Underground. In 1942 Audrey shifted loyalty and began to give secret concerts to raise money for the Dutch Resistance. The innocent-looking girl, speaking perfect English and appearing like an Angel of Mercy, bravely risked her life by carrying hidden messages and food to British fliers who’d been shot down on bombing missions to Germany. Her family, now pro-Dutch, also hid a British paratrooper in the cellar of their house. Robert Matzen notes in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II: “harboring an Englishman provided a direct, unbreakable connection between Audrey and Anne Frank. Audrey said that Anne’s diary ‘paralleled so much of what I had experienced.’ ” She also feared the paratrooper (like Anne in the Secret Annex) would be discovered and she would be shot. In March 1945—the month Anne died and two months before the liberation of Holland—Audrey was stopped by German soldiers rounding up young women to serve in their military kitchens. When they grabbed other women and were momentarily distracted, she managed to slip away.
  Like Miranda in The Tempest, Audrey could say, “I have suffered with those I saw suffer.” At the Arnhem railroad station, she recalled, “I saw families with little children, with babies, herded into meat wagons—trains of big wooden vans with just a little slat open at the top and all those faces peering out at you. And on the platform were soldiers herding more Jewish families with their poor little bundles and small children.” This is exactly what happened to Anne after she was arrested, and Audrey might have seen her in the cattle car if she lived in Amsterdam.
  Worse came in the Battle of Arnhem from September 17 to 26,1944, when most of the city was destroyed. General Bernard Montgomery dropped three airborne divisions behind enemy lines to secure the bridges on three rivers and prepare for the invasion of Germany. A military historian described the disaster. Strong German resistance barred the “Allied advance and bad weather prevented dropping reinforcements or supplies. Ringed by close-in artillery and mortar fire, with food and ammunition exhausted, and forced away from the Lek bridge, the defense collapsed. Some 2,200 survivors were evacuated across the river in assault boats during the night leaving 7,000 men behind them killed, wounded or captured.”
  Conditions were also terrible on May 4, 1945 when the Germans were finally driven out of Holland. Like Anne in the Secret Annex, Audrey and her mother “were in our cellar, where we’d been for weeks. Our area was being liberated practically house to house, and there was lots of shooting and shelling from over the river and constant bombing: explosions going on all night.” After the agony of starvation and bombardment, fear of discovery and death during the war, Audrey finally felt the joy of seeing a free Holland. Anne died two months earlier and never experienced that happiness.
  In October 1945 Audrey and her mother moved from Arnhem to Amsterdam. In another serendipitous connection, they lived below the apartment of the editor working on Anne’s soon-to-be-released Diary. In 1947, when Audrey read the galleys in the original Dutch, they seemed to express her own deepest and most powerful emotions. She remembered “there were floods of tears. I became hysterical… . In this child’s words I was reading about what was inside me and is still there. It was a catharsis for me. The child who was locked up in four walls had written a full report of everything I’d experienced and felt.”
  The Diary had a complex publishing history. After the Dutch Police had ransacked the Annex, the manuscript was rescued by chance by one of Otto’s employees who gave it to him when he returned from Auschwitz to Amsterdam in June 1945. He edited and typed the Diary, which was accepted by the Dutch publisher Contact and appeared in June 1947. It is ironic that Otto, who suppressed 35 percent of the original text, is listed as the leading co-editor of the Definitive edition in 1991, published eleven years after his death.
  Like the original response to the manuscripts of Proust’s Swann’s Way, Orwell’s Animal Farm and Lampedusa’s The Leopard, publishers were blind to the merits of the Diary, which was rejected by sixteen English-language firms in Europe and America. The book that spoke for millions of child-victims had universal appeal and was finally published by Doubleday in New York in 1952 and by Valentine Mitchell in London in 1958. Since then it has been translated into seventy languages and sold more than thirty million copies. Anne left no grave, no physical remains of any kind—not even her death date. But aware of her extraordinary gift, she declared, “I want to go on living even after my death!” and was granted posthumous fame. Her late entry, “If God lets me live I’ll make my voice heard, I’ll go out into the world and work for mankind!” deeply affected and inspired Audrey. As goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Children’s Fund from 1989 to 1992, she “worked for mankind,” visiting, comforting and raising money for sick and starving children in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
  Audrey was the only great star who had an aristocratic background and who suffered during the Nazi occupation of her country. In 1957, at the height of her fame and earning half a million dollars for each film, she was offered the part of Anne in the forthcoming movie, based on the sanitized and successful stage play, The Diary of Anne Frank. That year Otto Frank met her in Switzerland and urged her to accept the role of Anne. In their photograph Audrey, with slightly open mouth, dressed in a plain black sweater and scarf, looks amazingly like the handsome, smiling Otto, wearing a smart grey suit and tie. Audrey, who saw the concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, wrote an idealized, self-reflective portrait: “He was a beautiful-looking man, very fine, a sort of transparent face, very sensitive. Incapable of talking about Anne without extreme feeling. He had a need to talk about her. He struck me as somebody who’d been purged by fire. There was something so spiritual about his face. He’d been there and back.” In their emotional encounter, Otto found his long-dead daughter, Audrey found her long-lost father.
  Despite Otto’s pleas, Audrey refused the role for several persuasive reasons. She didn’t want to personally benefit by exploiting Anne’s life and death. She didn’t think she could convincingly play a thirteen-year-old girl when she was twenty-eight. Most important, she didn’t want to relive the horrors of the Nazi Occupation that would revive many agonizing memories. When she reread the Diary, she emphasized, “I was so destroyed by it again that I said I couldn’t deal with it. It’s as if this had happened to my sister. I couldn’t play my sister’s life. It’s too close, and in a way, she was a soul sister.”
  Twenty years later Audrey was offered a role in the film about the Battle of Arnhem, A Bridge Too Far, but couldn’t bear to revive the memories of hiding the British paratrooper and the destruction of her beloved city. In 1990, however, she gave a series of readings “From the Diary of Anne Frank,” accompanied by the music of the Jewish composer Michael Tilson Thomas, in Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston.
  Anne’s Diary brilliantly describes the intellectual, emotional and sexual development of a young girl under extreme stress, what Ian Buruma calls “the pathos of innocence brutally defiled.” Anne expresses a dominant theme in modern literature—loss—her lost childhood, lost literary genius and lost life. Audrey confirms her connection to Anne Frank in this passage:

Anne’s life was very much a parallel to mine. We were born the same year, lived in the same country, experienced the same war, except she was locked up and I was on the outside. Reading her diary was like reading my own experiences from her point of view… . It was in a different corner of Holland, but all the events I experienced were so incredibly accurately described by her—not just what was going on on the outside, but what was going on on the inside of a young girl starting to be a woman.

  Anne’s acute perception of herself applies with equal force to Audrey: “I have an odd way of sometimes, as it were, being able to see myself through someone else’s eyes.”