This week marks the 125th anniversary of Holocaust hero Corrie ten Boom’s birth. Along with her family, ten Boom helped save the lives of over 800 Jews during World War II.
Born on April 15, 1892, Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch watchmaker who grew up in a devout Christian household in Holland. Because the ten Boom family were known for their faith and social outreach in their town of Haarlem, Jews and members of the Dutch resistance flocked to their home for safe harbor after Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940.
Between 1943 and 1944 the ten Booms illegally housed countless refugees and gave them food ration cards along with safe passage to other Dutch safe houses. But on February 28, 1944 the family’s operation was compromised by a secret informant and the Gestapo raided their home. Thirty people, including Corrie, her father, two sisters and brother were taken to prison. The Gestapo was disappointed, though; they had hoped to find Jewish stowaways but there were nowhere to be found.
In reality there were Jews there. Four of them, along with two members of the Dutch underground, were hiding behind a secret wall in Corrie’s bedroom. With little food and no water, they stood still in the dark for over three days while the Gestapo kept watch over the house. Thankfully, Resistance fighters managed to help the six of them escape. In all, four of the six stowaways (three Jews, one Dutch underground worker) survived the war.
As for the ten Booms, they suffered greatly in prison. Corrie’s father, who was 84, died less than two weeks in custody. Corrie’s brother ended up contracting tuberculosis and died a short time after the war. For 10 months, Corrie and her sister Betsie were transferred to various prisons and stayed busy sharing their Christian faith. However, throughout that time Betsie’s health was failing, and she died at the age of 59 on December 16, 1944.
Just two weeks later Corrie, 52, was released from prison due to a clerical error. She would find out a week later that the rest of the women in her age group were executed.
After the war Corrie returned to her home in the Netherlands. Inspired by her sister’s love and faith, she established a rehabilitation center for postwar refugees. However, Corrie’s faith was put to the ultimate test in 1947 when she happened to meet one of the prison guards who tormented her and her sister.
In an excerpt from her best-selling autobiography The Hiding Place (1971), she described the chance meeting.
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!
Corrie continued describing her experience. The former guard walked up to her and told her he had become a Christian after the war. He did not recognize her, but he reached his hand out and surprised her by asking for her forgiveness…
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?
But Corrie said she knew what she had to do. She had to forgive him, even though her emotions were fighting against it.
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.
After silently praying for what felt like an eternity, Corrie grabbed his hand. With tears in her eyes, she forgave him and called him “brother.”
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 ten Boom died on her 91st birthday on April 15, 1983. According to Jewish tradition, only special souls are chosen to die on their birthday.