Ten Boom, Corrie
Corrie Ten Boom
Dutch writer Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983) authored the 1970s book The Hiding Place, an account of the secret sanctuary her family provided for beleaguered Jews during World War II. Ten Boom's devoutly religious family opened the doors of their Haarlem home to give refuge to dozens of Jews fleeing the genocidal Nazi policies during the German occupation of the Netherlands.
Holland's First Female Watchmaker
Ten Boom was born on April 15, 1892, in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. Before her first birthday, her grandfather died and left his home and watchmaking business, founded in 1837, to her father. The family, which included older sisters Betsie and Nollie, and a brother, Willem, moved into the house on Barteljorisstraat 19, and her father took over the storefront business below. The family lived in a quirky warren of rooms above the shop over three separate floors, and Ten Boom and her sister Betsie shared a room at the back of the house on a high third floor. During their youth, the household also included three aunts, who helped care for the four ten Boom children.
Like Betsie, ten Boom never married, and eventually joined her father's watch sales and repair business. She also became the first licensed woman watchmaker in the Netherlands. The family members were devout Christians, active members of the Dutch Reformed church, and ten Boom followed in the footsteps of one of her aunts and participated in several charitable aid projects in Haarlem. The ten Boom home and business served as a hub of activity in their neighborhood, and they regularly provided a meal to beggars and took in foster children. All the local children were especially fond of ten Boom's pious but genial father, Casper, nicknamed "Opa," or grandfather.
Anti – Semitism Alarmed Them
The ten Booms knew many Jewish families in their neighborhood; Corrie's brother, Willem, had become a minister and even ran the Dutch Reformed church's outreach program for Jews. Chancellor Adolf Hitler's rise to power in next–door Germany in 1933 alarmed them, as did subsequent reports of the harassment of Jews there. Their first clue that German Jews were simply disappearing came when business correspondence with some longtime watch–part suppliers in Germany began returning with the envelope marked "Address Unknown."
On May 10, 1940, Nazi armies invaded the Netherlands. German soldiers, having overtaken the country, inundated ten Boom's Haarlem. New laws included a requirement that every Dutch person carry an identity card at all times, and another that forced Jews to wear a yellow star on their clothing. Then, customers with Jewish surnames who had left watches for repair never came back to pick them up. Ten Boom was aware that her brother was taking in Jewish refugees, first from Germany and then from the Netherlands, France, and other places occupied by the Nazis, at the nursing home he ran in nearby Hilversum.
Ten Boom's participation in Haarlem's underground resistance movement evolved from the community social work she had done for many years. Her entrance into the this covert, civil–disobedience network came not long after the ten Booms' neighbor, a Jewish furrier named Weil, was visited by German soldiers and his store and living quarters above ransacked before him. Weil stood on the street, immobilized by shock, and ten Boom urged him to come into her shop. He said his wife was visiting relatives in Amsterdam, and wanted to warn her not to return. The ten Booms agreed to help, and found a place for him in Hilversum.
"God's People Are Always Welcome"
In May of 1942, a well–dressed woman came to the ten Boom door with a suitcase in hand. Nervously, she told ten Boom that she was a Jew and that her husband had been arrested several months before, and her son had gone into hiding. Occupation authorities had recently visited her, and she was too fearful to return home. After hearing about how they had helped the Weils, she asked if she might stay with them, and ten Boom's father readily agreed. A devoted reader of the Old Testament, Casper ten Boom believed Jews were indeed "the chosen," and told the woman, "In this household, God's people are always welcome."
Thus began "the hiding place," or el beje, as it was known in Dutch. Ten Boom and her sister began taking in refugees, some of whom were Jews, others members of the resistance movement the Gestapo, or German secret police, and its Dutch counterpart were seeking. There were several extra rooms in their house, but food was scarce due to wartime shortages. Every non–Jewish Dutch person had received a ration card with which they could procure weekly coupons to buy food. Ten Boom knew many in Haarlem, thanks to her charitable work, and remembered a couple who had a developmentally disabled daughter. For about twenty years, ten Boom had run a special church service program for such children, and knew the family. The father was a civil servant who was by then in charge of the local ration–card office. She went to his house unannounced one evening, and he seemed to know why. When he asked how many ration cards she needed, "I opened my mouth to say, 'Five,' " ten Boom wrote in The Hiding Place. "But the number that unexpectedly and astonishingly came out instead was. 'One hundred.' "
Called in Favors
Throughout the rest of 1942 and 1943, ten Boom became a key figure in the Haarlem underground movement, and the quarters above the watch shop a refuge for dozens who came and went undetected. Though in her early 50s, ten Boom irelessly helped others. The numerous contacts she had made through her church social work repaid her many times over through favors large and small. Someone introduced her to an architect, who designed a secret room behind her own bedroom at the top of the house, where the refugees could hide during a raid. Once she was even summoned to the police station, just a block away, but the chief confided that he knew of her activities and was working with the underground as well.
The household installed a secret buzzer alarm system, and regularly held practice drills. The danger loomed closer when Nollie ten Boom, who with her husband had also sheltered Jews, was taken away. But ten Boom, whose father had insisted she learn German and English as a child, approached a German doctor at the detention facility, and convinced him to get her sister a medical–related release. But in January of 1944, the ten Boom watchmaking apprentice volunteered to go on a courier mission for the resistance network when no one else was available that day. The Gestapo detained him, and the ten Booms began to worry for their safety and that of their guests. Since the young man was not an "official" member of the underground, he had not been trained to evade police questions to protect others in the network.
Arrested and Sent to Ravensbruck
On February 28, 1944, ten Boom had the flu, and awakened with the feverish image of the six people they were hiding fleeing past her bed and vanishing behind the sliding door into the hidden room. Struggling through her fever, she realized that no drill had been scheduled for that day, and prepared herself for the worst. Taken from her room, ten Boom joined her father and sister at their dining room table, where they were interrogated for hours and even struck. Many more joined them that day, for they had failed to place a covert signal in their window warning others that the house was temporarily unsafe. Police took the ten Boom sisters and their father to the station, where their father delivered his regular bedtime Bible reading session, as he had done nightly throughout their lives.
The ten Booms were transferred to Scheveningen Prison in The Hague and separated. There, 84–year–old Casper ten Boom fell ill, and was finally taken to a hospital after some delay. He died in the hospital corridor, but since his identity papers were not with him, he was buried in a pauper's grave. Ten Boom and her sister only learned of this tragedy many months later. But Nollie ten Boom sent word that "all the watches in your closet are safe," which was written under the postage stamp in a package of supplies and clothing she had sent. On the day of their arrest, the Gestapo had searched the house but did not find the secret room. Soldiers watched the house for several days, until handing the duty over to the local police. The sympathetic police chief stationed two officers who were underground members on watch duty one night, and the six escaped.
Ten Boom and her sister were moved to a concentration camp in Holland and then later to Ravensbruck in Germany, where they lived under conditions of near–starvation, backbreaking manual labor, and vermin infestation. Still, they held Bible study groups in the knitting room to which they were assigned because of their age. Her sister Betsie, 59, was in the camp. By what was likely a clerical error, ten Boom was released on Christmas Day of 1944 and put aboard a train to Berlin. At the badly bombed station, an elderly janitor helped her find the train bound for the Dutch border. The meager bread and ration coupons she had received upon her discharge had either been stolen or lost, and she had nothing to eat for several days. Starving and bedraggled, she made it to a hospital in Groningen once she crossed the border, where the staff nursed her back to health.
Returned to Her Christian Mission
Ten Boom returned to her father's house, and struggled to readjust to her a life without her father and sister. For a bit of solace, she spent days searching for the family cat. Neighbors told her that children had fed "Opa's kitty" for months with food scraps, but the cat simply disappeared one day. Ten Boom searched the nearby streets, "but with a sinking heart: in this winter of Holland's hunger, all my searching had brought not one single cat or dog to my call," she wrote.
After the Allies retook the Netherlands and the war turned, ten Boom began speaking about her experiences. She toured Europe, and then the globe. Still active in charitable causes, she founded a refuge house for concentration–camp survivors, and another to give shelter to the Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the occupation. She wrote several books about her faith, but The Hiding Place remains her most successful. Published in 1971, it sold well and was made into a 1975 film. Ten Boom funded further missionary work with the proceeds. After settling in southern California, she died on her ninety–first birthday in 1983. It was a fitting end for a woman who had helped save the lives of an estimated 800 Jews under the most dangerous of conditions, for Jewish lore holds that it is a special blessing from God to die on the same day of one's birth. The ten Boom house at Barteljorisstraat 19 still stands in Haarlem, as a public museum.
Ten Boom, Corrie, with C. C. Carlson, In My Father's House: The Years Before "The Hiding Place," Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976.
——, with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place, Chosen Books, 1984.
Investor's Business Daily, April 23, 2001.
Saturday Evening Post, July 1983.