Today is the 126th birthday of a rebel. Corrie ten Boom and her family stood up, spoke up, and did what other people knew was right but were too afraid to do. There are generations of people alive because of her. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
Cornelia Arnolda Johanna ten Boom was born on April 15, 1892, in Haarlem, Netherlands, near Amsterdam. Known as “Corrie” all her life, she was the youngest child, with two sisters, Betsie and Nollie, and one brother, Willem. Their father, Casper, was a jeweler and watchmaker. Cornelia was named after her mother.
The ten Boom family lived in the Beje house in Haarlem (short for Barteljorisstraat, the street where the house was located) in rooms above Casper’s watch shop. Family members were strict Calvinists in the Dutch Reformed Church. Faith inspired them to serve society, offering shelter, food and money to those in need. In this tradition, the family held a deep respect for the Jewish community in Amsterdam, considering them “God’s ancient people.”
After the death of her mother and a disappointing romance, Corrie trained to be a watchmaker and in 1922 became the first woman licensed as a watchmaker in Holland. Over the next decade, in addition to working in her father’s shop, she established a youth club for teenage girls, which provided religious instruction as well as classes in the performing arts, sewing and handicrafts.
In May 1940, the German Blitzkrieg ran though the Netherlands and the other Low Countries. Within months, the “Nazification” of the Dutch people began and the quiet life of the ten Boom family was changed forever. During the war, the Beje house became a refuge for Jews, students and intellectuals. The façade of the watch shop made the house an ideal front for these activities. A secret room, no larger than a small wardrobe closet, was built into Corrie’s bedroom behind a false wall. The space could hold up to six people, all of whom had to stand quiet and still. A crude ventilation system was installed to provide air for the occupants. When security sweeps came through the neighborhood, a buzzer in the house would signal danger, allowing the refugees a little over a minute to seek sanctuary in the hiding place.
The entire ten Boom family became active in the Dutch resistance, risking their lives harboring those hunted by the Gestapo. Some fugitives would stay only a few hours, while others would stay several days until another “safe house” could be located. Corrie ten Boom became a leader in the “Beje” movement, overseeing a network of “safe houses” in the country. Through these activities, it was estimated that 800 Jews’ lives were saved.
On February 28, 1944, a Dutch informant told the Nazis of the ten Booms’ activities and the Gestapo raided the home. They kept the house under surveillance, and by the end of the day 35 people, including the entire ten Boom family, were arrested, Although German soldiers thoroughly searched the house, they didn’t find the half-dozen Jews safely concealed in the hiding place. The six stayed in the cramped space for nearly three days before being rescued by the Dutch underground.
All ten Boom family members were incarcerated, including Corrie’s 84-year-old father, who soon died in the Scheveningen prison, located near The Hague. Corrie and her sister Betsie were remanded to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp, near Berlin. Betsie died there on December 16, 1944. Twelve days later, Corrie was released for reasons not completely known.
Corrie ten Boom returned to the Netherlands after the war and set up a rehabilitation center for concentration camp survivors. In the Christian spirit to which she was so devoted, she also took in those who had cooperated with the Germans during the occupation. In 1946, she began a worldwide ministry that took her to more than 60 countries. She received many tributes, including being knighted by the queen of the Netherlands. In 1971, she wrote a best-selling book of her experiences during World War II, entitled The Hiding Place. In 1975, the book was made into a movie starring Jeannette Clift as Corrie and Julie Harris as her sister Betsie.
In 1977, at age 85, Corrie ten Boom moved to Placentia, California. The next year, she suffered a series of strokes that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. She died on her 91st birthday, April 15, 1983. Her passing on this date evokes the Jewish traditional belief that states that only specially blessed people are granted the privilege of dying on the date they were born.