Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983)
Imprisoned "for giving" sanctuary to her Jewish neighbors in World War II Holland, Corrie learned a lesson on "forgiving" which she shared with the world.
"My (parents)... had opened a small jewelry store in a narrow house in the heart of the Jewish section of Amsterdam. There, in Amsterdam in that narrow street in the ghetto they met many wonderful Jewish people. They were allowed to participate in their Sabbaths and in their feasts. They studied the Old Testament together... "
Corrie was living with her older sister Betsie and her father in Haarlem when Holland surrendered to the Nazis. She was 48, unmarried and worked as a watchmaker in the shop that her grandfather had started in 1837. Her family were devoted members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Her father was a kind man who was friends with half of the city of Haarlem. Her mother had been known for her kindness to others before her death from a stroke.
Corrie credits her father's example in inspiring her to help the Jews of Holland. She tells of an incident in which she asked a pastor who was visiting their home to help shield a mother and newborn infant. He replied, "No definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child." She went on to say, "Unseen by either of us, Father had appeared in the doorway. 'Give the child to me, Corrie,' he said. Father held the baby close, his white beard brushing its cheek, looking into the little face with eyes as blue and innocent as the baby's. 'You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family'"
Corrie's involvement with the Dutch underground began with her acts of kindness in giving temporary shelter to her Jewish neighbors who were being driven out of their homes. She found places for them to stay in the Dutch countryside. Soon the word spread, and more and more people came to her home for shelter. As quickly as she would find places for them, more would arrive.
Because of the number of people using their house as a safe place from the Nazis, the ten Booms were encouraged to build a secret room in case a raid took place. After inspection, it was decided that the secret room would be built in Corrie's bedroom, as it was in the highest part of the house, which gave people who were trying to hide the most time to avoid detection (as a search would start on the ground floor). The hidden room was behind a false wall, designed by a member of the Dutch resistance. They were able to sneak bricks and other building supplies into the house by hiding them in briefcases and rolled up newspapers.
When finished, the secret room was about 30 inches deep—the size of a medium wardrobe. A ventilation system allowed for breathing. To enter the secret room, a person would have to open a sliding panel in a cupboard, and crawl in on their hands and knees. In addition, an electronic buzzer was installed to give the house's residents warning of a raid.
After a year and a half, her home developed into the center of an underground ring that reached throughout Holland. Daily, dozens of reports, appeals and people came in and out of their watch shop. Corrie found herself dealing with hundreds of stolen ration cards each month to feed the Jews that were hiding in underground homes all over Holland. She wondered how long this much activity and the seven Jews that they were hiding would remain a secret.
On February 28, 1944, a man came into their shop and asked Corrie to help him. He stated that he and his wife had been hiding Jews and that she had been arrested. He needed six hundred gilders to bribe a policeman for her freedom. Corrie promised to help. She found out later that he was a "quisling," a Dutch informant, who had worked with the Nazis from the first day of the occupation. He turned their family in to the Gestapo. Later that day, her home was raided, and Corrie and her whole family were arrested. But, their six Jewish visitors made it to the secret room in time and later were able to escape to new quarters.
The ten Boom family was sent first to Scheveningen prison where her father died ten days after his capture from illness. Corrie's sister Nollie, brother Willem, and nephew Peter were all released. Later, Corrie and Betsie were sent to the Vught political concentration camp in the Netherlands, and finally to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Although for many people, the concentration camp would have been the end of their work, for Corrie and Betsie the months they spent in Ravensbruck became "their finest hour." In her book, Corrie described how she struggled with and overcame the hate that she had for the man who betrayed her family and how she and Betsie gave comfort to other inmates.
Corrie describes a typical evening in which they would use their secreted Bible to hold worship services: "At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. So many now wanted to join us that we held a second service after evening roll call. . . (These) were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28. A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a sotto-voce chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed."
"At last either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then, we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, and back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb."
Betsie, never strong in health, grew steadily weaker and died on December 16, 1944. Some of her last words to Corrie were,
"...(we) must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here."
Due to a clerical error, Corrie was released from Ravensbruck on New Year's Eve in December of 1944, one week before all women her age were killed. When she found out, she said,
"God does not have problems. Only plans."
She made her way back to Haarlem, and tried for a while to go back to her profession of watchmaking, but found that she was no longer content doing that. She began traveling and telling the story of her family and what she and Betsie had learned in the concentration camp.
Eventually, after the war was over, Corrie was able to obtain a home for former inmates to come and heal from their experiences. She returned to Germany in 1946, and traveled tirelessly over the world as a public speaker, telling the story of what she had learned, appearing in over sixty countries, during which time she wrote many books.
A Guidepost article from 1972 relates a short story titled, "I'm Still Learning to Forgive." It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
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 Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.
"You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk," he was saying. "I was a guard in there." No, he did not remember me.
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." "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. Fraulein, ..." his 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."
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.----
Corrie also wrote (in the same passage) that in her post-war experience with other victims of Nazi brutality, it was those who were able to forgive who were best able to rebuild their lives.
In 1977, Corrie, then 85 years old, moved to Orange, California. Successive strokes in 1978 took away her powers of speech and communication and left her an invalid for the last five years of her life.Corrie died on April 15, 1983 in Orange, California, on her ninety-first birthday.