I was first introduced to the story of Corrie Ten Boom back in 2014 when I heard about a theatre company that was putting on a production of The Hiding Place. At that time though I didn’t know much about her beyond the fact that she helped Jews escape during World War II. It wasn’t until recently that I began to take more of an interest in Corrie and all that she did and said; and after seeing her home and hearing her story I now feel like I know her.
Corrie was born on April 15th 1892 into a Christian family that believed in the power of God’s love and forgiveness, and had a fierce desire to help and connect with the Jewish people. It was her father’s love for the Jews that inspired Corrie to reach out to them as well; and in May 1940 when the Nazis invaded Holland she began to not just build relationships with the Jews, but to save their lives as well.
Within a short time, Corrie became the leader of the Dutch underground in Haarlem. At this point she was almost 50 years old, but more active than ever before in her efforts to hide and relocate Jews to safer cities. This is where my admiration for Corrie began to grow because so often we feel that only the young can make a difference; but she shows us that no matter you age or your social standing you can make a difference, you need only take the first step and God will do the rest.
The hiding place was behind a false brick wall that was built in Corrie’s room. It was big enough for 6 people to stand in, but not big enough for them to lay down.
There were no lights, not heat, no water, only a few crackers, and only a bucket to use as a toilet. There were 6 people living with the Ten Booms as this time, and they would run drills everyday until they were able to run up 3 flights of stairs (with all of their belongings, and plates and food) and squeeze into the hiding place in 70 seconds.
At this point in the tour our guide, who had lived through the war herself, told us that on the day that Corrie and her family was arrested for helping the Jews, the 6 people in the hiding place had to remain there for 2 days because there were Nazi guards left behind. The reason that they were finally able to leave was because there were some Dutch police officers who were part of the underground resistance that took the place of the Nazi guards.
Our guide also told us that for a long time they only knew what happened to 5 out of 6 of the people in hiding after the war. It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the Ten Boom museum that they found out what happened to the last boy. When they took the tour up into Corrie’s room and said what happened to all of the people, there was an elderly man in the tour group who spoke up at the end and said that he was the last boy who had hide there.
During Corrie’s time in two different labour and concentration camps, there was miracle upon miracle that happened to her and her sister that prove that God works through even the worst of circumstances. From smuggling a Bible into the camp, to hosting daily Bible studies, to the softening of guards hearts, right up to the clerical error that allowed for her to be released instead of killed; Corrie relied on God for everything. She lifted everything up to God, and thanked him for everything as well (fleas and all).
After the war Corrie opened up two healing homes, one for the survivors of the concentration camps and one for the guards at the camps. She also travelled around the States and Europe talking about forgiveness and God’s love for everyone. Probably one of the most well known passages about forgiveness from her book The Hiding Place is as follows:
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
And having thus learned to forgive in this hardest of situations, I never again had difficulty in forgiving: I wish I could say it! I wish I could say that merciful and charitable thoughts just naturally flowed from me from then on. But they didn’t.
Corrie taught so many people to forgive and love again. All throughout her life she was more concerned with helping others and showing them God’s love for them than with her own safety. Standing there in the hiding place in her room made me stop and think…would I be able to do the same thing? To step boldly into a fight that I didn’t know if I could win, only knowing that it was the right thing to do and praying that God would lead me along the way.
Even at the end of her life, when several strokes had paralyzed her and rendered her mute she continued to leave those that visited her feeling loved beyond measure. The fact that she did not need words or actions to comfort people is a true testament to her relationship with God. This once outspoken, active woman was now quiet and motionless…but she was not silent. She did not need words or gestures, all she needed was her Lord. And on April 15th 1983, her birthday, Corrie was finally reunited with all of the family members that she lost during the war.
It was in the Hiding Place that the feeling of needing to trust God turned into a deep, visceral desire to wholly rely on God for everything; not just on the big days but in the quite of the mornings and the darkness of night as well. Corrie’s faith and story inspired me to not just sit back as the world changes, but to step into relationships and positions that allow for you to direct that change towards love and connection.
I may not have known Corrie Ten Boom personally, but after reading about her life and visiting her home I feel as though I will always carry the lessons that she taught and the words that she spoke in my heart.
(If you ever get the chance to visit Haarlem, I urge you to book a tour of the Ten Boom house. It is well worth the visit and an hour of your day)