In 1935, Hepburn’s parents divorced and her father, a Nazi sympathizer, left the family. Both parents were members of the British Union of Fascists in the mid-1930s according to Unity Mitford, a friend of Ella van Heemstra and a follower of Adolf Hitler.
Hepburn later referred to her father’s abandonment as the most traumatic moment of her life. Years later, she located him in Dublin through the Red Cross. Although he remained emotionally detached, she stayed in contact with him and supported him financially until his death.
In 1939, her mother moved her and her two half-brothers to their grandfather’s home in Arnhem in the Netherlands, believing the Netherlands would be safe from German attack. Hepburn attended the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945, where she trained in ballet along with the standard school curriculum. In 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands. During the German occupation, Hepburn adopted the pseudonym Edda van Heemstra, modifying her mother’s documents because an ‘English sounding’ name was considered dangerous, with her mother feeling that “Audrey” might indicate her British roots too strongly. Being English in the occupied Netherlands was not an asset; it could have attracted the attention of the occupying German forces and resulted in confinement or even deportation. Edda was never her legal name, also it was a version of her mother’s name Ella.
By 1944, Hepburn had become a proficient ballerina. She secretly danced for groups of people to collect money for the Dutch resistance. She later said, “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performances.” After the Allied landing on D-Day, living conditions grew worse, and Arnhem was subsequently devastated by Allied artillery fire that was part of Operation Market Garden. During the Dutch famine that followed, over the winter of 1944, the Germans blocked the resupply routes of Dutch people’s already limited food and fuel supplies as retaliation for railway strikes that were held to hinder the German occupation. People starved and froze to death in the streets. Hepburn and many others resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake cakes and biscuits.
Hepburn’s half-brother, Ian van Ufford, spent time in a German labour camp. Suffering from malnutrition, Hepburn developed acute anemia, respiratory problems, and edema. In 1991, Hepburn said “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.”
One way in which Audrey Hepburn passed the time was by drawing. Some of her childhood artwork can be seen today. When the country was liberated, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration trucks followed. Hepburn said in an interview she ate an entire can of condensed milk and then got sick from one of her first relief meals because she put too much sugar in her oatmeal. Hepburn’s wartime experiences later led her to become involved with UNICEF.