Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, February 19, 2018

cram_halfPart of an occasional series on living with hardship

The year was 1942, and Holland was under Nazi occupation. The elderly Casper ten Boom and his middle-aged daughters were leading quiet lives as watchmakers until Jewish neighbors began disappearing.

One night after curfew, a terrified Jewish woman arrived at the door of the ten Boom shop. The woman’s husband had just been arrested, her son was in hiding and she was anxious about returning home for fear of arrest. She’d heard that the Christian ten Boom family had helped a Jewish neighbor, and she didn’t know where else to turn. Casper ten Boom kindly assured her, "In this household, God’s people are always welcome."

Thus began a steady stream of frightened Jews seeking refuge. At first, Betsie and Corrie ten Boom housed the visitors in their extra rooms, but they quickly ran out of space.

More pressing was the matter of food. Every non-Jewish Dutch person was issued a ration card, but Jews received no ration cards and food was scarce due to wartime shortages. For a while, Corrie and Betsie shuttled Jews to safe houses, or to outlying farms where food was not as scarce. After a while, however, even farms were full.

Corrie begged God to provide a solution. Almost immediately, she recalled a Dutch man who worked at the local ration-card office. She visited the man’s home unannounced one evening and, at great risk, stated that she needed illegal ration cards. When he asked how many, she opened her mouth to say, "Five." "But," Corrie wrote later, "the number that unexpectedly and astonishingly came out instead was one hundred."

Over the next two years, the ten Booms developed contacts across Holland, working with members of the Dutch Resistance to hide as many as 600 Jews. Underground sympathizers built a secret room on the top floor of the ten Boom home, hidden behind a false wall. A buzzer was installed to give warning of a raid.

But their actions placed them in constant danger. Once, a Nazi officer jeeringly asked Casper ten Boom if he knew he could die for helping Jews. The elderly watchmaker replied, "It would be an honor to give my life for God’s ancient people." In the end, he did.

Early in 1944, the Nazis raided the watch shop and arrested the ten Booms. The Gestapo ransacked the house, but never found the secret room where six Jews crouched in terrified silence. Resistance workers were able to liberate the refugees two days later.

Casper ten Boom died after only 10 days in captivity. Corrie and Betsie were shuttled to three different prisons, the last being the infamous Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

Life in the camp was almost unbearable, with cramped barracks that were so foul and flea-infested that Corrie wondered aloud why God had created fleas. During those months, Corrie and Betsie led nightly prayer meetings and Bible studies, sharing Jesus’ love with fellow prisoners who were hungry for hope. Corrie marveled that these meetings were never raided by guards. Gradually, she realized why the guards refused to enter the barracks: fleas. Corrie was forced to thank God for the fleas.

On Christmas Day 1944, Corrie ten Boom’s beloved sister Betsie died at Ravensbruck Prison. A few days later, Corrie was released. She later learned that her release was the result of a clerical error, and that all women prisoners her age were put to death a week after she was set free.

It was two years after the war when Corrie spotted him – a balding, heavyset man who greeted Corrie after her speech about God’s forgiveness and healing. Instantly, Corrie remembered him as the cruel guard at Ravensbruck who had been instrumental in Betsie’s death.

The man admitted that he’d been at Ravensbruck but explained that in the years since, he had opened his heart to Jesus. "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," he said, extending his hand. "Will you forgive me?"

Corrie stood there in shock. She hated this man, this horrible guard who had tortured people for fun.

And yet, Corrie knew that she must forgive him, for it was a condition placed on her own forgiveness.

"Jesus, help me!" she cried out silently to God.

Mechanically, without feeling, Corrie took the man’s hand and uttered the words, "I forgive you, brother." And as she did so, God began to melt the ice in her heart.

Later, Corrie wrote, "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."

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" ( Matt. 6:14-15).

Corrie ten Boom tells her story in her book, The Hiding Place.

Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.