As Corrie ten Boom watched a secret room getting carved out of her bedroom wall, she was well aware of the consequences of what she planned to hide inside, as well as what would happen if the Nazi secret police ever found out. But she did it anyway. She was going to do what she knew to be right. She was going to do what she believed God wanted her to do, no matter the consequence.
On April 15, 1892, Cornelia Arnnolda Johanna ten Boom, otherwise known as Corrie, was born in Haarlem in the Netherlands. She was the youngest of four and grew up in a crowded home above her father’s watch shop with her parents, siblings and three maternal aunts. Her father, Casper, was so consumed with his craft as a watchmaker that sometimes he forgot to charge customers for his work.
As the youngest of four, Corrie was required to assist with the housework from a young age, while her older sister Betsie was privileged to work with their father in the store. However, this all changed when Betsie came down with a cold one day and Corrie was enlisted to cover her shifts. It was an instant success. Corrie found herself so fascinated with the business side of the operation that even upon Betsie’s return to full health, they never swapped back to their original roles. Corrie remained in the shop with her father and Betsie cared for the housework. Corrie was so committed to the business and her father’s craft that she formally trained to become a watchmaker. In 1922, at 30 years of age, she officially became the first woman to become a licensed watchmaker in the Netherlands. This alone was quite the feat. Had her story ended here, she still would have had a footnote in history as a trailblazing woman who successfully entered an occupation which until this point men had exclusively dominated. But Corrie’s story doesn’t end here. It has only just begun.
The ten Boom family weren’t just watchmakers, they were Christians who attended the Dutch Reformed Church. As a dedicated Christian, Corrie’s faith drove her to establish a youth club for teenage girls. In this club, she taught the girls skills such as sewing, handicrafts and performing arts. Still living at home and being led by her parents’ example, the ten Booms opened their home to those in need, offering shelter, food and money. They practised what they preached and didn’t discriminate against those who needed their help.
In May 1940, Corrie’s life changed forever, as did the lives of her fellow countrymen. The Dutch defences were overrun and within four days of fighting, Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began. An initial consequence of the German invasion was the cessation of the youth club that Corrie had facilitated for more than a decade. Such gatherings were now outlawed.
The family continued to operate their watch shop as the world around them changed. They noticed regular customers started to disappear from the shop. They watched as their Jewish neighbours’ houses got raided, the occupants never to be seen again.
Two years into the German occupation, a Jewish woman unexpectedly arrived on the ten Boom family’s doorstep with her possessions bundled into a small suitcase. She had heard they’d previously assisted one of their Jewish neighbours and told them her husband had been arrested and her son was in hiding. She feared returning to her home and as such, she desperately needed shelter. By this stage of the war, the Nazi attitude towards the Jewish people and anyone who assisted them was clear. For the ten Booms, any assistance they might provide was at their peril, and yet, they did not hesitate to risk their lives for the stranger on their doorstep. As Christians, they believed all people were created equal and loved by God. During the height of the German occupation, they opened their home to this vulnerable Jewish visitor. It was a daring risk considering they lived only half a block from the local police headquarters, which was now overrun with SS soldiers. This choice ignited a burning passion inside Corrie and led to their family’s involvement in the Dutch underground.
Before long, Corrie began distributing stolen ration cards to those in need and was harbouring displaced Jews inside her home. An alarm was installed inside the residence and at the sound of the buzzer, their guests would cram themselves inside the false wall in Corrie’s bedroom. They would have to remove all signs of their presence in the house, such as extra dishes or bedding, as they ran to hide in their purpose-built cubby. Corrie also assisted with smuggling Jews across the continent to safe homes outside of the reach of the ever-growing German territory.
By the end, Corrie helped rescue approximately 800 Jewish people throughout the war. As her involvement in the underground movement grew, so did the attention she garnered. This led to Corrie’s arrest on February 28, 1944, and her subsequent internment at Ravensbrück concentration camp alongside her sister Betsie. Despite the circumstances they now found themselves in, Corrie and Betsie continued to serve God despite the constant threat to their lives.
When Corrie arrived at Ravensbrück, she watched in horror as the women were forced
to surrender their belongings, strip naked and walk defenceless past a dozen SS guards into the shower room. She looked down at the small Bible she clutched in her hands and prayed God would continue to protect the book so precious to her that had made it this far undetected. She spotted an old wooden bench, shoved the Bible, vitamin bottle and sweater they had—their most prized possessions—behind the decrepit bench and proceeded down the line. Once they had showered, Corrie reclaimed her items and shoved them down her thin prison dress, which barely veiled the protruding bulge. But it didn’t matter. Though the woman in front was searched three times, and Betsie searched after her, Corrie passed through without a hand touching her. Her bundle of goods was safe. She went on to use her Bible to share love and hope through worship services secretly held in their barracks each night. Even in this horrendous and cruel concentration camp, Corrie believed God had not forsaken her.
Sadly, on December 16, 1944, Betsie passed away. Only 12 days later, having been imprisoned for 10 months, Corrie was miraculously released from the camp. She later found out that her release was due to a clerical error. Just a week following her release, all the women in her age group were sent to the gas chambers.
Corrie ten Boom’s belief in God resulted in an amazing life of service, no matter the consequences. While the world around her changed and practising her Christianity became more dangerous, her love for God remained strong and impacted those around her. Each day, whether she woke up in her own bed or on a rickety bunk in Ravensbrück, she decided to practice her faith. She was consistent in her love for each person she encountered and even returned to Germany two years after the war to forgive two German soldiers who served in Ravensbrück during her imprisonment.
Corrie was not born a hero. She became a hero through her small but persistent choices to love and serve those around her, as she believed God had called her to do. Her story reminds us that we, too, have a choice to make each day. We can choose to focus only on ourselves, or we can choose to impact the lives of those around us positively. While the two are not always mutually exclusive, there will undoubtedly be times in our lives when it will be easier to ignore someone in need rather than stop to lend a hand. Each time you are presented with that choice, remember that the legacy of Corrie ten Boom was built each time she chose to help someone. Yours can be as well.
Brianna Watson is a solicitor specialising in family law based in Adelaide, South Australia. She is married with two corgis.