Nearly three decades years after her death, the truth about the actress's challenged childhood in Holland during World War II has come to light in a new book
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Audrey Hepburn was the epitome of beauty, chic and grace worldwide, but she was much more than a style icon.

As a new biography Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, excerpted exclusively in this week’s PEOPLE, reveals, it was her experiences during Germany’s five-year occupation of Holland during World War II that truly shaped her.

While more has come out in recent years about her war experience, Robert Matzen’s book reveals harrowing new details about how a young Hepburn battled severe malnutrition, particularly during what was known as the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45.

Leading up to that brutally cold winter, as Germany tightened its grip on Holland, Hepburn and her family were often forced to live in the cellar for days and weeks at a time due to bombing overhead. And food became more and more scarce.

Credit: Archive Photos/Getty

“We had no light, no heat, no water,” said Hepburn years later. “We had no food because all the shops were closed. We ate what we could find. During the day we merely existed.”

Hepburn circa 1941.
| Credit: Dotti Collection

As Matzen writes, Hepburn, who died of abdominal cancer in 1993 at age 63, later described the conditions during that winter as “the nearest I could come to saying I’ve seen starvation.”

For more about Hepburn, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

“I went as long as three days without food,” she recalled of the early months of 1945, “and most of the time we existed on starvation rations. For months, breakfast was hot water and one slice of bread, made from brown beans. Broth for lunch was made from one potato and there was no milk, sugar, cereals of any kind.”

Towards the end of the war, Matzen writes “[Her] once-plump face had grown thin, her eyes dull. Her wrists, knees and ankles were swollen. She couldn’t sit comfortably, because her buttocks had withered away, and she couldn’t get warm no matter how many blankets she wrapped herself in.”

“These were all signs of acute anemia and edema,” says Matzen. “Many young people in Holland suffered from severe edema, [swelling of the joints] due to lack of nourishment for weeks and months on end.”

Dutch Girl by Robert Matzen

Hepburn later described how she and her older brother, Alex, went “into the fields to find a few turnips, endives, grass, even tulips.”

As she later explained in a 1992 interview, “It sounds terrible. You don’t just eat the bulb. Tulip bulbs actually make a fine flour that is rather luxurious and can be used for making cakes and cookies.” Yet as Matzen writes, “the only problem being that the remainder of the ingredients didn’t exist to make either cakes or cookies.”

“She was very close to death,” says her younger son, Luca Dotti, who wrote the introduction to Dutch Girl. “A lot of people around her died, many died from lack of food. There was always this concept of luck and being gifted with my mother because maybe the neighbor you went to school with didn’t make it.”

“She often said ‘I’m lucky,’ and reading the book, I now understand what she meant.”

“My mother always repeated there was no greater evil than war,” says Dotti. “Because it affects the children.”