January 27th is International Holocaust Memorial Day. One of the people whose life we celebrate in the program is Corrie ten Boom – although I tend to think that it is the entire ten Boom family who should be celebrated for the way they lived their lives during one of the darkest periods of the twentieth century, namely World War II and the Holocaust. Here is their story. I hope it inspires you as it does me and gives you the courage to look at your own life and see the ways in which you also can be a light in whatever darkness surrounds you.
Corrie ten Boom was born in 1892 to a Christian family living in Haarlem in the Netherlands. She was the youngest of four children, with two older sisters, Betsie and Nollie, and an older brother named Willem. The family lived in an old one-room wide, three-story high building they affectionately called the Beje (pronounced “bay-yeh”), where Corrie’s father, Casper, operated a watch shop on the bottom floor.
From her parents Corrie learned that all people, as the children of God, are created equal and are deserving of love, no matter who they are or how they choose to behave. This belief was lived out on a daily basis in the ten Boom household, whose home was always open to anyone – friends and strangers alike. In fact, the ten Booms’ openness and hospitality was so well known throughout Haarlem, that when the Beje’s watch shop celebrated its one hundredth anniversary in 1937, it seemed as though most of the city wished to pay their respects to Casper and his family: “All through the short winter afternoon they kept coming, the people who counted themselves father’s friends. Young and old, poor and rich, scholarly gentlemen and illiterate servant girls”—the vast array of people simply testifying to Casper’s secret: “Not that he overlooked the differences in people [but] that he didn’t know they were there” (ten Boom 13).
In May 1940 the Nazi army invaded the Netherlands, bringing with them their stringent ideology and harsh laws pertaining to all non-Aryans, especially Jews. Over time, as the German occupation grew steadily more unbearable, many restrictions were placed on the citizens of Holland; Nazi informers were everywhere, watching people, ready to turn anyone in who failed to comply with the strict Nazi laws. It was impossible to tell friend from foe, to know who was trustworthy, and who might betray their fellow Dutchmen to the Nazis. A spirit of fear and distrust lay thick upon the people of Holland.
It was at this point in time that the first Jewish refugee appeared at the Beje’s side door – a young woman whose husband had been arrested, whose son had gone into hiding, and who was desperate for a place to hide herself, lest she be taken by the Nazis as well. Two nights after this woman first appeared, the same thing happened again, only this time it was an elderly Jewish couple standing outside the Beje door. Night after night the ten Booms found themselves face to face with either frightened Jews or young Dutch men, some of whom were trying to avoid being sent to the munitions factories and some of whom were active in the Dutch underground resistance and needed a safe house until they could move to their next location. This swarm of people at the Beje posed all kinds of problems for Corrie and Betsie and their father. But the habit of hospitality was already so deeply ingrained in their hearts that there was simply no question of turning people away, no matter what the risk of taking them in involved.
From 1943 until 1944, it is estimated that some 800 people passed through the Beje, the majority of whom were Jews on their way to being placed in whatever hiding places could be procured for them throughout Holland. But the Beje’s work came to a sudden end on February 28, 1944, when the house was raided by the Gestapo. Corrie, Betsie, and their father (along with various other people who were at the house at the time) were taken into custody, where Casper ten Boom died ten days later. For many months, Corrie and Betsie were moved from one internment camp to another, eventually ending up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where Betsie breathed her last, her broken body finally succumbing to the terrible hardships of her experience. Corrie survived the War only because she was accidentally released from the death camp, more than a year after she and her family had been taken away as prisoners.
Corrie’s and Betsie’s suffering was tremendous, but what is remarkable – almost unbelievable – is how their habit of hospitality carried them through even these darkest moments of their lives. In Haarlem, the family expressed their conviction that all people are valuable and worthy of being loved by keeping the door to their house open at all times. But Corrie and Betsie continued to express the same conviction when there was no longer any Beje – when they were in prison and in the concentration camps – through the open door of their hearts.
This was especially true of Betsie, who never stopped thinking of all people – even those who were committing the worst crimes – as being children of God. As such, they were always welcome in the “Beje” in her heart: she would not turn anyone away, even her worst enemy. Corrie would later recall how, when they first arrived at the barracks in Ravensbruck and were shown the filthy, flea-infested sheds where they would bunk with hundreds of other female prisoners, she turned to Betsie in dismay and asked, “How long will it take?” – How much longer would they have to suffer so? But Betsie’s answer caught her completely off guard:
“Perhaps a long time,” she said. “Perhaps many years. But what better way could there be to spend our lives?”
I turned to stare at her. “Whatever are you talking about?”
“These young women. That girl back at the bunkers. Corrie, if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love! We must find the way, you and I, no matter how long it takes . . .”
She went on, almost forgetting in her excitement to keep her voice to a whisper, while I slowly took in the fact that she was talking about our [Nazi] guards. I glanced at the matron seated at the desk ahead of us. I saw a gray uniform and a visored hat; Betsie saw a wounded human being. (ten Boom 175)
Betsie’s ability to see the humanity in those who had brought her so much suffering is nothing short of astounding, but she was only able to do so because of the way she had been practicing hospitality, in the truest and deepest sense, for most of her life. It’s staggering to think that it was possible to fight something as dark as the Nazi regime with something as simple as hospitality.
How can we, in our circumstances, wherever in the world we are, develop the habit of hospitality? Who is knocking on the doors of our homes, our hearts, that we might be inclined to turn away because of our own fears, or prejudices, or pain? Can we dare to see the humanity in all those around us and extend to them the welcome that can – perhaps – save lives? It’s not a hypothetical question. People continue to die every day because they are turned away at the door – whether it’s the door of a house, a country, or a heart. Can we take an honest look at the world around us and see the ways in which we are contributing to this darkness? And can we commit, together, to taking a stand against the darkness by cultivating the habit of hospitality? It’s so simple. But I promise you, it will be life-changing.
Ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiding Place. New York: Bantam Books, 1974. Print