The legendary star never met the young Holocaust victim, but felt connected to Frank's story
Audrey Hepburn made less than 20 films during her legendary career, but they were so beloved — Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sabrina, to name a few — that she became one of Hollywood’s most beloved and enduring stars.
But there was one role she was never able to play: that of Anne Frank.
While Hepburn never met Frank, they lived parallel lives. They were the same age, lived just 60 miles apart, and suffered the horror of the German occupation of Holland, notes Robert Matzen in his new book Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, excerpted exclusively in this week’s PEOPLE. But with one life and death difference: Anne was Jewish.
The actress grew up in Holland during Germany’s five-year occupation of the country. She rarely spoke about the darkness of those years, where she was forced to live in a cellar due to the bombing, nearly starved to death due to food shortages, and lost her beloved uncle, Otto van Limburg Stirum. He was a magistrate who did not support the Nazi regime, and was then executed on August 15, 1942.
According to Matzen, when the star read Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Hepburn was devastated. “I’ve marked where she said ‘Five hostages shot today,’ said Hepburn years later. “That was the day my uncle was shot. And in this child’s words, I was reading what was inside me and still there. This child who was locked up . . . had written a full report of everything I’d experienced and felt.”
When producer and director George Stevens turned Frank’s diary into a movie in 1959, Anne’s father Otto Frank — the family’s sole survivor — asked Hepburn to play his late daughter, who died of typhus fever at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.
RELATED VIDEO: Inside the Secret Life of Audrey Hepburn—Her Childhood, Style, & Path to True Love
But Hepburn was so traumatized that she was unable to. “I was so destroyed by it again, that I said I couldn’t deal with it,” Hepburn later said. “It’s a little bit as if this had happened to my sister . . . in a way she was my soul sister.”
For more about Hepburn, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Newcomer Millie Perkins went on to portray Frank, and The Diary of Anne Frank won three of the eight Oscars it was nominated for in 1960.
Yet in her later years, Hepburn read from Frank’s diary in a series of concerts to raise money for UNICEF.
Her son, Luca Dotti, who wrote the book’s forward, says, “Because of the war, she took nothing for granted. Everything had value. Once you are a survivor, you are always a survivor.”