“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
At a time in history when it seemed that the entire world had turned their backs on the plight of the Jews, there was a family in Amsterdam who did everything in their power to protect and to provide for their Jewish neighbors and friends. They took seriously Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, to show mercy and compassion to those who are afflicted, regardless of the cost involved or the sacrifice that might have to be paid.
Corrie Ten Boom was part of this courageous family who were watchmakers in Amsterdam during WWII. In fact, Corrie had become the first woman ever licensed as a watchmaker in the Netherlands.
At the very same time, in this very same city, a 13 year-old-girl named Ann Frank started a diary on her birthday – June 12, 1942. Since Amsterdam had the country’s largest Jewish population – the Nazis focused on it viciously.
At first, Corrie’s role was helping to steal ration cards so the Jews being hid and transported to safety could eat. Then she became part of the Dutch Resistanceas they created false identity papers, transformed cars with government plates, forged signatures, and found safe places to hide the Jews.
The Resistance sent an architect to the Ten Boom home to design a secret room in Corrie’s bedroom behind a false wall that could hold up to six people. This secret room came to be known as “The Hiding Place.” A ventilation system to provide air for the occupants was put in as well. When news of security sweeps filtered in, a buzzer was activated to signal danger, allowing the occupants to dash to the sanctuary at the top of the house in under a minute.
The risk involved to the family was serious. Anyone discovered sheltering Jews would be arrested and incarcerated.
Nevertheless, the entire Ten Boom family became active in the movement to rescue Jews hunted by the Gestapo. Some of their “guests” would stay only a few hours, while others lingered several days and weeks until another hiding place could be located. Corrie became a leader in this movement, overseeing a network of safe houses throughout the country. It was estimated that 800 Jews were saved through their acts of mercy.
In February 1944, a Dutch informant squealed to the Gestapo about the Ten Boom’s work. The family was arrested and imprisoned. Casper, Corrie’s father, died ten days after their arrest. Thankfully, the Jews hiding in their secret room were never discovered and were later shuttled to safety.
Corrie and her sister Betsie ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, a women’s labor camp in Germany. Betsie succumbed to the cruel treatment she received there and died on December 16, 1944. The day before her death, as she lay on a stretcher on the hospital floor, she whispered to Corrie, “Must tell people what we learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep, that God is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”
Corrie was released from Ravensbruck in 1945 by a clerical mistake. She would ultimately discover that a week after her release all the women her age at this concentration camp were sent to the gas chambers for execution!
Two years passed and Corrie was invited to speak in Munich, the very town that Adolf Hitler had begun his political career. Afterward, she watched a heavyset, balding man walk toward her in an overcoat carrying a brown hat. But all she saw before her was a blue uniform, a cap with a skull and cross bones, and a swinging leather crop.
She felt to throw up. This man was the first SS guard to cruelly sneer at and mock her and Betsie in the shower room that first day in the camp, their nakedness exposed before him, her sister’s face deathly pale. He had undoubtedly been the most sadistic of all the camp guards they encountered.
She could hardly focus on his words as he extended his hand to her and said, “How grateful I am for your message of forgiveness, Fraulein. You mentioned Ravenbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. I have asked God to forgive me for the cruel things I did. But I need to hear your forgiveness of me as well.”
He extended his hand again. “Fraulein, will you forgive me?”
Corrie churned internally. Nothing in her had the least desire to forgive this man. He represented the worst of the place that had brutally taken her sister’s life and so many others. Forgiveness seemed impossible.
Ever so slowly, she remembered the words from the Bible. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
Had she not traveled all over teaching the importance of forgiveness everywhere? Had she not seen for herself the practical impact of this act of mercy – that those who were able to forgive their enemies, resumed their lives. But those who chose not to forgive, remained emotional invalids.
Corrie felt nothing for this man; her heart was cold. She did the only thing she knew to do. “Jesus, help me,” she prayed silently. “I will lift my hand toward him. You supply the feeling.”
Like a robot, she put out her arm. She extended her fingers to his. And something miraculous occurred. It was as if electricity flowed through her arm, to her hand, and into her fingers. She grasped the man’s hand and said, “I forgive you, brother!”
Later Corrie recalled, “I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
This lesson she would never forget, and she would share it until her death in 1983, traveling to 64 countries, speaking and teaching of the power and the freedom of God’s forgiveness while helping to build communities that ministered to those victimized by the horrors of the war. Every chance she got Corrie relayed the lesson she learned that day – one often cannot forgive without the power and the grace of God.
Bill and I heard Corrie speak in person when she visited our church many years ago. She was a personal friend of his Aunt Pearl in California. And this past summer we had the incredible experience of actually standing in front of her home in Amsterdam where so many Jewish lives were saved.
Far more significantly, we visited the Yad Vashem Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. The State of Israel chose Corrie for induction into the Righteous Among the Nations, a designation honoring Gentiles who risked their lives during the war to save Jews. We bent our head and read the plaque at the base of one of the memorial trees on the Avenue of the Righteous with the inscription dedicated to Corrie Ten Boom.
This remarkable woman set the example for us of what it looks like to live courageously, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, regardless of the serious cost involved.
Elizabeth A Mitchell