John Murray PP tells the story of a family – father and two daughters – who sheltered Jews in Haarlem, Holland, during World War II. One daughter Corrie survived into 1980s continuing a ministry of God’s forgiveness in the USA.
The corner shop was like a million others scattered throughout Holland or any other part of Europe. A small family business had been started there – repairing watches – in 1837 and it had passed from father to son by the beginning of the Second World War.
Casper Ten Boom was a good worker, conscientious and caring. He lived here with his two unmarried daughters, Corrie and Betsie, and through the decades they were active in social work in the local area. Their house was always open for anyone in need. They were devout Christians, members of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Place of refuge
When the war came, Holland was very quickly overrun by the Nazi war machine and very soon the Ten Boom house became a refuge and hiding place for those fleeing from the Nazis. It was their non-violent way of resisting the German forces and it led them to hide Jews, students who refused to cooperate with the Nazis, and members of the Dutch underground movement.
Corrie credited her father’s example in inspiring her to help the Jews of Holland. In one incident she asked a pastor who was visiting their home to help shield a mother and newborn infant. ‘Definitely not,’ he replied. `We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!’
`Unseen by either of us my father had appeared in the doorway. “Give the child to me, Corrie.” He held the child close, his white beard brushing the baby’s cheeks. “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honour that could come to my family.” ‘
During 1943 and into 1944 there were never less than six-to-seven people illegally living in their home – four Jews and two-to-three members of the underground. Additional refugees would stay with the family for a few hours or a few days until another ‘safe house’ could be located.
Corrie, this quiet and rather plain spinster, became the ringleader within the Haarlem network and it was estimated that the network saved more than 800 Jews by the end of the war. On a daily basis she found herself dealing with hundreds of stolen ration cards to feed the Jews who were hiding in places all over Holland. Often she wondered how long this clandestine activity could continue.
Betrayal and imprisonment
On 28 February 1944 the family was betrayed by an informer, and the Gestapo – the Nazi secret police – raided their home. They had set a trap and during the day they seized everyone who came to the house – in all thirty people were captured and within a few hours Corrie and her father and sister found themselves in prison.
Yet somehow the Gestapo could not find what they were looking for – the hiding place which was located behind a false wall in the home. Its six occupants remained hidden for almost two days without water and food but somehow they survived and of the four Jews, three made it to the end of the war.
The Ten Booms were taken to Scheveningen prison and old Casper only lasted ten days before he died. When he was asked if he knew he would be imprisoned for hiding Jews he replied, ‘It would be an honour to give my life for God’s ancient people’.
The two sisters then spent ten months in three different prisons, finally ending up in the notorious Ravensbruck camp near Berlin. Life there was horrendous but Corrie and Betsie spent their time sharing their deep faith and love with their fellow prisoners. Many women became Christians in that terrible place because of the witness of the two sisters. It was their ‘finest hour’ as Corrie later described in her book The Hiding Place.
At the beginning, the sisters were afraid to share their faith but as the nights went by and no guard visited their barrack, they began to take the lead in prayer and sharing of scripture. ‘These were evenings like no other. A single meeting might include a recital of the Magnificat by the Catholics, a whispered hymn by Lutherans and a sotto voce chant by the Orthodox.’ Then Corrie or Betsie would open their smuggled Bible and read a text in Dutch and someone would translate into German or French or Russian and the word of God echoed around the beams in a dozen different languages. ‘It was truly a Pentecost moment.’
After the war
Sadly Betsie died in the camp but Corrie survived the war and realized that she had to share what Betsie and herself had learnt in the camp: ‘There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.’ Betsie would say `God will give us the love to forgive our enemies’.
She made her way back to Haarlem and tried to pick up the watch mending trade again but her heart wasn’t in it. At the age of fifty-three Corrie then began a ministry which took her to over sixty countries over the next thirty-three years. Often she would speak of how God’s love could overcome even the greatest evil which was personified in the Nazi terror.
On one occasion she even met one of the guards who had whipped her sister in the camp. He heard her speak of this love and of God’s forgiveness and after the meeting he approached Corrie and extended his hand. She recognized him and immediately she struggled with her own hatred for what he had done to Betsie. Somehow she was able to take his hand in hers and offer him the forgiveness which he sought.
Joyful to the end
In her latter years Corrie emigrated to the United States and lived in the state of California. In her last years she experienced a series of debilitating strokes. ‘The tramp for the Lord’ had served her Master in health; now she was being called to serve him in illness. It was like a second imprisonment. Yet despite her inability to speak she was able to remain joyful and full of hope for everyone who came to visit her. She died at the age of ninety-one in 1983.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.