Corrie ten Boom may be most familiar to readers of Christian literature for her words of inspiration. She was a woman of remarkable strength and character, who risked everything for her beliefs and for the welfare of strangers. She paid a terrible price for her convictions. But, in the end, rose above the ash and rubble of war-torn Europe, a glowing example of all to which the human spirit should aspire.
Cornelia (Corrie) Arnolda Johanna ten Boom was born on 15 April, 1892, the youngest of four children. The others were Willem, Betsie, and Nollie. Her devoutly Christian family lived with three of Corrie's aunts in a house called the 'Beje', which was situated above her father's watch shop in Haarlem, the Netherlands. But, by the time the war began, only she, Betsie, and their father, Caspar, remained in the Beje. Corrie followed her father into the watch making business, becoming the first female horologist in Haarlem.
The Hiding Place is the story of the ten Boom family during World War II. It is Corrie's personal memoir of the events that she experienced. And it is also a personal statement of her faith as a Christian.
The story of The Hiding Place opens in 1937 with the 100th birthday of the watch shop. This introduces the reader to all the major characters of the story: the whole ten Boom family, as well as 'Oom' Hermann Sluring (known as Pickwick), a wealthy friend of the family. At this party Corrie received the first hint of her future, when Willem (who had been preaching of the dangers of Nazism as early as 1927) arrived at the party with a Jew, who had just escaped from Germany.
When Germany invaded Holland in May, 1940, the ten Booms began to resist the Occupation. They started off small. With the aid of Nollie's son Peter, they hid their large radio and turned in the portable. Corrie's lie to the army clerk was her first.
During the first year of the Occupation there were only minor attacks on the Jews of Haarlem. However, once the Nazis began to round up and deport Jews, Corrie, Betsie, and Caspar decided that they must help. Willem was in contact with people in rural areas who were prepared to hide Jews; so, when Corrie heard of a nearby shop being invaded by German soldiers, she sent a message to Willem. Willem's son Kik came to the Beje after curfew to take the shopkeeper, Mr Weil, and his wife away to safety.
Corrie used God's guidance to establish their own network to help the Jews. Many of those who came to the Beje were moved on to 'safe houses' in the country.
It was Kik who first mentioned the Dutch Underground to Corrie. He introduced her to Haarlem's underground network, where, for security purposes, everyone's name was Smit. The Dutch underground was involved in liaison with the British and free Dutch, and helped downed pilots to reach the coast. They gave Corrie all the help they could, such as the use of official cars, forgery skills, and false papers. They also offered to create a secret room in the Beje, where the Jews could hide in the event of a raid.
The room was built by one of the most famous architects in Europe, but known to Corrie only as Smit, of course. He created a false wall in Corrie's bedroom, having the materials carried in briefcases. The fake wall looked identical to other walls in the house; and the room behind it was the size of a medium wardrobe, only 30 inches deep, with an air vent on the outside wall.
There were bookshelves on the bedroom side of the false wall; and beneath the bottom shelf there was a small sliding panel, which opened into the secret room. The hiding place contained a mattress, biscuits, vitamins, and a jug of water, besides the possessions of any unofficial residents of the house.
The Dutch underground arranged for the Beje phone to be reconnected and the number changed, so that they could use it for Underground work. They could never be sure that the phone wasn't tapped, however, so they developed a code using watchmaking talk. For example:
We have a woman's watch here that needs repairing, but I can't find a mainspring. Do you know who might have one?
This would actually mean:
We have a Jewish woman in need of a hiding place, and we can't find one among our regular contacts. Do you know anyone?
The first Jew to stay at the Beje on a permanent footing was Meyer Mossel, a cantor from the Amsterdam synagogue. His wife and children were in hiding on a farm; but the owners had refused to take him because of his quintessentially Jewish looks. His arrival broke down the ten Boom's last hesitations over hiding Jews themselves.
Within a week the Beje had three more inmates: Jop, the shop apprentice, who opted to stay at the Beje rather than risk travelling to and from work; Henk, a young lawyer; and Leendert, a schoolteacher.
Leendert installed an electric warning system in the shop, putting a buzzer in every room with a street window. Once this was in place the Beje held practise drills, so that all the Jews would get into the secret room in under a minute if there were an emergency. The buzzer could be heard throughout the house but not outside.
Pickwick, who was deeply involved in the underground, provided Corrie's most regular assistance. He warned the ten Booms to watch bins, ashtrays, and mattresses, so that they did not provide clues to the existence of their illegal guests, in the event of a raid. He also warned that mealtimes and night time were when the police preferred to attack.
Pickwick and Kik initiated practise drills. The first of these (which included removing plates from the dinner table, as well as the people, from view) took four minutes. After several more practise drills, they managed to make the house appear home to just three people in only 70 seconds.
At the same time, the Beje gained three new lodgers: Thea, Meta, and Mary. These six people became the nucleus of the household.
As time went on, it became more dangerous for those involved in helping the Jews. Nollie's strict honesty led to her be arrested when she admitted hiding Jews; however, the Jews in question still escaped imprisonment. Corrie approached a prison doctor to get Nollie released; and, after seven weeks, Nollie was set free on grounds of ill health and the theory that her children would become a burden on the state without her. Corrie had neglected to mention that the children were all over 18.
The drills at the Beje took on a new intensity; but Corrie still found it hard to remember to deny knowledge of their Jews in the foggy first moments of being awoken. At one point, a local police chief summoned Corrie and told her that he knew she was involved in the underground. He then asked her if she could find someone to kill a police officer, whom he knew to be an informer. Corrie refused, preferring instead to pray that the man would stop informing to the Germans.
As it became clear that people were aware of their work, the ten Booms knew they were in increasing danger; but they could not stop their work. One day, Jop went to warn the residents of a farm of an expected raid, and was arrested there, because the raid occurred sooner than expected. Corrie was warned that Jop was likely to talk.
The long feared event occurred on 28 February, 1944. Corrie had the flu, and Willem was conducting a prayer meeting in the Beje. Early in the day, a man from Ermelo came to the house. He said that he had been hiding Jews, and now his wife had been arrested. He begged for 600 guilders to bribe a prison officer. Corrie was hesitant, yet she didn't want to risk not giving it. She arranged for the money to be given to him. A little while later, Corrie was roused by their desperate lodgers racing to the hidden room.
A police captain entered the home almost immediately, and ordered her to go downstairs. Corrie had prepared a special bag in case of a raid; but she was forced to leave it - and it's precious contents, including night things, a bible, and vitamins - behind, as it was too close to the entrance to the secret room. The Beje's 'All Clear' sign remained in the window, so visitors continued to enter and were also ensnared. In total, 35 people were arrested, among them Pickwick and the ten Boom family - father, four children, and one grandchild, Peter. They were forced into a bus and driven away. As they went Corrie recalled a dream she had on the night of the German invasion:
I had seen it all. Willem, Nollie, Pickwick, Peter - all of us here - drawn, against our wills, across this square. It had all been in the dream - all of us leaving Haarlem, unable to turn back.
They were taken to The Hague, which was rumoured to be the location of the Gestapo headquarters in Holland. The chief interrogator there seem shocked that Caspar had been arrested.
I'd like to send you home, old fellow. I'll take your word that you won't cause any more trouble.
- Gestapo chief
If I go home today, tomorrow I will open my door again to any man in need who knocks.
Corrie tried to free the others of blame by admitting to being the 'ringleader'. It failed and many of the group were moved to prison.
They arrived at Schvengenin Prison, where the ten Boom family were separated. Corrie was sent to a cell shared with three other prisoners. But, after two weeks, she was taken to a doctor, and then to solitary confinement, probably due to illness.
On 20 April, 1944 (Hitler's birthday), all of the prison guards were absent at a party. The women began to call out to each other through the food holes in their doors, passing names left and right down the corridor. They tried to send messages and find out about other prisoners. Corrie heard rumours of a prospective Allied invasion of Europe, that Nollie had been released more than a month before, and that Betsie was still alive, though in prison. Peter, Pickwick and Willem had all been released as well. There was no word of Caspar.
Soon afterwards, Corrie received a letter and a package from Nollie, containing some of the items from Corrie's prison bag and the news that Caspar ten Boom had died 10 days after his arrest. Corrie added another date to her list scratched on the wall - 'Father released'.
Corrie noticed that the handwriting on the envelope was slanting up towards the stamp in an unusual way. Upon investigation, Corrie found that there was a message hidden under the stamp: 'All the watches in your closet are safe'. Corrie knew that those hidden in the secret room were still safe.
Late in May, 1944, Corrie was finally interrogated. She was given a list of names to see if she could identify any of them. She realised, for the first time, the value of the ubiquitous Smit, because she knew none of the names, and could not give away any signal of recognition. It became clear to her that the Gestapo believed that the Beje had been the headquarters of raids on food ration offices, while Corrie knew nothing beyond her own cards.
Over three successive mornings Lieutenant Rahms gave up the pretence of questioning her, telling her of his family, and asking about her pre-war life in Holland. At a later date, he took Corrie to the reading of her father's will. There she was reunited with her family, and learned that Kik had been caught and sent on a prison train... probably to Germany. She was also told that the local police chief had arranged for a couple of sympathetic officers to be assigned to surveillance duties of the Beje; and they had sent the Jews to new hiding places. Before she left, Nollie gave Corrie a bible in a pouch that could be hung round her neck.
Some time after this, an order was given to the prisoners to prepare for an evacuation. Spotting Betsie in the crowd waiting to board the train, Corrie forced her way towards her. The four months in Schvengenin had been their only time apart in 53 years, and Corrie felt more confident besides Betsie.
They arrived at Vught, a Concentration Camp for political prisoners, where they were given forms, which another prisoner told them meant they were to be released. Instead, they were sent into the main camp. Corrie was shaken by this disappointment, but Betsie saw it as a chance to share God's word.
The prisoners were given work details: Betsie was to sew uniforms with the weaker prisoners, while Corrie was sent to the 'Philips Factory', a prison barracks where radios were assembled.
Betsie came across a woman who had been betrayed by a man working for the Gestapo. She told her that this man had been uncovered in Amelia, where she lived, and had moved to Haarlem to work with the police. His name was Jan Vogel, and he had betrayed the ten Booms. Corrie was overcome by rage, when she learned of this; but Betsie believed that he must have been suffering under the knowledge of what he had done, and so she was able to forgive and pray for him.
At about the same time, Corrie heard that six months was the usual term of imprisonment for crimes involving food ration cards, and began to focus on the possibility of release in September to help her survive. Rumours also began to spread about the movement of allied forces towards Holland. Soon afterwards, prisoners were ordered to collect their personal items, before being squeezed onto a train. For the first time, Corrie and Betsie were glad that their father had not lived to see and experience such horrors.
The train journey continued for four days, taking the sisters into Germany and Ravensbruck. This was a woman's extermination camp, notorious even in Holland.
Corrie managed to hide her most precious possessions - the bible, vitamins, and a jumper - when they were ordered to change into prison uniform. Every other woman entering the barracks was searched, but not Corrie. During the hours that the prisoners were in the barracks, Corrie and Betsie's little bible became the centre of their lives. And throughout their time in the camp, Betsie insisted to Corrie that they must be grateful for all things, even the fleas in the barracks.
The sisters were assigned to hard labour, living on extremely meagre rations. In the evenings Corrie and Betsie would hold a little worship service in the barracks. There was no supervision in their dormitory room, and they discovered why when Betsie was moved to knitting detail, due to ill health. The guards refused to enter the dormitory because of the fleas. Meanwhile, Corrie's little vitamin bottle seemed to have become bottomless. Betsie and many of the weakest prisoners received a dose from it every day, and yet still it didn't empty. One day a friend, who worked in the hospital, managed to steal some vitamins for them. That night the Corrie's old vitamin bottle was empty.
Shortly after this Corrie was ordered to attend a medical inspection, to see if she could qualify for munitions work, where living conditions and food were supposed to be better than in the camps. But she deliberately misread the eye test in order to stay with Betsie. Therefore, she was sent back to work in the camp, and found that she was assigned to knitting detail alongside her sister. During this time, they planned what they would do after the war. Betsie was insistent on having a house that would be a haven to those damaged by the camps; and Corrie was amazed by Betsie's ability to visualise this house in detail.
As time went on, Betsie became more sick. But she continued to minister to those around her, and told Corrie more of her dream for their house, where they would minister to the ex-camp guards, as well as the prisoners. One morning Betsie was unable to move from their bunk. Corrie begged for her to be sent to the hospital, but was told that all prisoners must attend roll call. After roll call Corrie found that the queue for the hospital was too long for Betsie to stand in, especially since it was so cold; so they returned to the barracks.
The next morning, as Corrie and a friend prepared again to carry Betsie out for roll call, the guard ordered them to leave her in bed. When they returned for work they found the guard in the dormitory, braving the fleas and arranging Betsie's transfer to the hospital. As Betsie left for the hospital she told Corrie that she believed they would both be out of the camp by the New Year, and that they must then tell people that it was possible to survive anything.
At lunch time that day Corrie was allowed to visit the hospital to see Betsie. But, in the evening, she could not obtain permission to return, and so just went and peered through the window near Betsie's bed. She saw that Betsie was dead. Corrie could not bear to enter the hospital to be told the news, knowing that if she entered by the unofficial entrance she would have to pass all the dead bodies being laid out.
Later, her friend Mien, who worked at the hospital, found her wandering aimlessly through the camp, and tried to get Corrie to go with her. Corrie told her that she knew of Betsie's death, but Mien insisted and took her to see Betsie, where she was laid with the other dead prisoners. Betsie looked as she had in her youth, all lines of hunger and care were gone.
Three days after Betsie's death, Corrie heard her name read out over the loudspeaker; and she was told to stand to one side. She was the only one singled out at this roll call; and she was given no explanation for it. The guard led her away for a medical test to determine whether or not she was fit for release. She was sent to the camp hospital to recover from swelling in her legs before she could be released.
Corrie was not given any explanation for her release, but was given some food and ration cards and her valuables.
When Corrie arrived in Berlin on New Years Day, 1945, she realised the truth of Betsie's prophesy, both sisters had been freed. When she finally reached Holland, she stumbled into a hospital, where she received care for the first time since the raid on the Beje.
Corrie travelled on an illegal food convoy to Willem's home. There she learnt the news of all that had passed, and found that no word had been heard of Kik. (It was later discovered that he had been sent to Bergen-Belsen Camp. He never returned.) She also saw that Willem was slowly dying from spinal tuberculosis, which he had contracted in Schvengenin.
The final stage of Corrie's journey was home to Haarlem. Since the raid, the Beje had housed a succession of refugee families, while the watch shop had been kept running by the ten Boom's employees. When Corrie arrived the house was empty. And so she moved home.
In an attempt to busy herself, Corrie opened the Beje to the mentally disabled of Haarlem, who had been hidden away by their families, giving them a new environment and things to occupy their time. She accepted a request from a national group to take false release papers for a prisoner in Haarlem jail. When the officer there told her she must bring the papers back the next day Corrie began to panic. She realised that the courage she had shown previously was a gift for that time, and that the emptiness she was feeling now was not the lack of things to do, but the loss of Betsie. Then Corrie remembered how much Betsie had wanted to tell the world of what they had seen, and began to speak in public.
At every meeting, Corrie spoke of Betsie's dream of a home for those injured by the war. After one such meeting she was approached by a Mrs deHaan, who told Corrie of her five sons working for the Resistance. One of the sons had been caught, and Mrs deHaan said that, while Corrie had been speaking, she had felt that her son would come back, and that, in gratitude, she would open her home for Betsie's vision.
A fortnight later, Corrie received a note from Mrs deHaan saying this son had returned. On visiting the house, Corrie discovered that it was identical to the one which Betsie had envisioned in Ravensbruck.
After the War
In June, 1945, the house opened. The first residents were those who had been hidden away, as well as those who had been imprisoned, both by the Germans and the Japanese in Indonesia.
Corrie discovered that the people who were hardest to forgive were the Dutch who had collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation. After the war, these people were turned out of their homes and jobs; and so Corrie opened up the Beje to them. Doctors, psychiatrists, and nutritionists treated war victims free of charge; and, in time, wounds began to heal.
Corrie ten Boom continued to speak out to audiences all over the world, partly to raise funds for the homes and partly to share Betsie's story with the world. She visited 60 countries in 32 years, and was honoured as a war hero by the Queen of the Netherlands.
In 1968 she was asked to plant a tree in the Garden of Righteousness in Jerusalem, in remembrance of those her family had saved.
The Hiding Place was published in 1971, and is available in paperback (Hodder and Stoughton, 1976). The story was made into a film, starring Julie Harris, in 1975.
Corrie ten Boom suffered a stroke in 1978, and, for the final five years of her life, was paralysed and unable to speak. She died in 1983, on her 91st birthday, having published seven more books. The ten Boom Home in Haarlem is now a museum. There is still a watch shop beneath.
Related BBC Links
Read another child's experience of living in occupied Holland.
Discover stories from some of the 60,000 German children who, between 1948 and 1950, spent several months with Dutch foster families to recover from the war.