Corrie ten Boom was born on April 15, 1892, near Haarlem, in the Netherlands. The youngest of four children, she was raised by devoutly Christian parents, members of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church. Her father, Caspar, was a well-loved member of their community, and owned a clock and watch shop in Haarlem’s main shopping district. Caspar trained his daughter in his trade and in 1922, after a two-year apprenticeship, Corrie became Holland’s first licensed female watchmaker.
A born organizer, Corrie ran the Haarlem Girls Clubs—a kind of Christian social organization—and from 1923-1940, the clubs expanded to include thousands of girls in the Netherlands and Indonesia. The ten Booms had always embraced a peaceful, brotherly form of Christianity which rejected all forms of racism and hate-mongering. In fact, Corrie’s brother, Willem, a minister, had written his pre-ordaination dissertation on rejecting anti-Semitism. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Corrie turned her considerable organizing skills to the Resistance movement, especially hiding and providing safe transport for Dutch Jews—first their neighbors, then strangers. The ten Boom’s home above the clock shop on Barteljorisstraat became known as “de schuilplaats”, or “the hiding place.”
The refugees often hid in a room that the ten Boom family had built in Corrie’s bedroom. Specially designed by an architect belonging to the Dutch Resistance, the hiding place was the size of a medium wardrobe, 30 inches deep, with an air vent on the outside wall. A small hatch slid open to let people in and out, and the entire wall felt solid, and would not sound hollow if knocked upon.
The entire ten Boom family was active in the Resistance, sheltering not only Jews, but Resistance spies and citizens hiding from the Gestapo and its Dutch collaborators. Because they were well-liked in Haarlem, especially in the church community, the ten Booms were able to call in many favors. For example, the civil servant who ran the local ration-card office was a member of their church, and Corrie had for years run a special service attended by his developmentally disabled daughter. When Corrie visited his house one evening to ask for extra ration cards, he was willing to help. When he asked how many she needed: “I opened my mouth to say, ‘Five,'” Ten Boom wrote in her memoir, The Hiding Place. “But the number that unexpectedly and astonishingly came out instead was. ‘One hundred.'”
For years the ten Booms were extremely active in the Resistance, rescuing many people from certain death and helping to run information to other members. One of those Resistance members, a Dutch engineer named Jan, would later become a close friend of my grandfather, and hosted my parents on their first trip to Holland in 1974. A native of Amsterdam and not Haarlem, Jan did not know until after the war that the Resistance organizer who he was working for was, in fact, Corrie ten Boom.
The Germans arrested the entire Ten Boom family on February 28, 1944, acting on a tip from a Dutch informant. They were sent first to Scheveningen prison, where Caspar ten Boom died ten days later. Corrie’s sister Nollie, brother Willem, and nephew Peter were all released, although Willem later died from the tuberculosis he’d contracted in prison. But Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to the Vught political concentration camp in the Netherlands, and finally to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where Betsie died. Corrie was released on New Year’s Eve of December 1944, a week before all the women prisoners her age were killed. She later discovered she had been slated to die but was released due to a simple clerical error.
After the war, Corrie ten Boom returned to the Netherlands to set up rehabilitation centers for the displaced. Her post-war life was devoted to a kind of radical reconciliation and forgiveness that most people would find impossible. But for Corrie, forgiveness was not just a matter of Christian faith, it was practical as well; she later wrote that it was the people who were able to forgive who had the most success rebuilding their lives after the war. She lived her creed of forgiveness; the Schapenduinen center she founded in 1945 provided refuge not only for concentration camp survivors but for homeless and outcast Dutch who had collaborated with Germans during the occupation—people like the ones who had betrayed her to the Germans. Corrie ten Boom even returned to Germany in 1946, as a witness and a leading voice for reconciliation.
In her memoir Tramp for the Lord, Corrie tells how, on one of her visits to Germany, she was approached by a man who had been a guard at Ravensbrück. At the time, she wondered if she could forgive him, but prayed that she would be able to. She wrote that, “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 was knighted by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands for her role in the Dutch Resistance, and honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, alongside fellow Dutchwoman Miep Gies, who had sheltered the Frank family in Amsterdam. The ten Boom house in Haarlem is now a museum honoring the family’s work with the Resistance, and Corrie’s Christian activism. The ten Boom clock shop still does business on the ground floor. Corrie ten Boom moved to Orange County, California in 1977 and died there in 1983 at the age of 91.
This is the “hiding place” in the ten Boom house on Barteljorisstraat: