Brief Historical Background on the Ten Boom Family
Corrie ten Boom was born on April 15, 1892 in Haarlem, North Holland. She was raised in the Christian tradition of the Dutch Reformed Church. Her family had a deep respect for the Jews, calling them “God’s ancient people.” That would explain why, when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, starting in May 1940, Corrie and her family saved many Jewish people from being deported to the concentration camps in Germany. The family did that by being involved in the Dutch Resistance, an “underground” movement, which hid Jews from the Nazis. Also, on a regular basis, Corrie’s family provided food and shelter for the Jews.
However, on February 28, 1944, Corrie and the members of her family were arrested and imprisoned for hiding Jews in the ten Boom house. Casper, Corrie’s father, died in Scheveningen prison. But in September 1944, Corrie and her sister, Betsie, were deported to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück, where they subjected to harsh and humiliating treatment by the prison guards. Betsie died in Ravensbrück in December 1944. Shortly thereafter, Corrie was accidentally released from the concentration camp.
Corrie’s Challenge and Difficulty in Learning to Forgive Others
In 1947, three years later, Corrie recalled meeting one of the Ravensbrück prison guards in Munich, Germany, saying,
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him – a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken … the message that God forgives. …
“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
“… Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ‘will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there … and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there — hand held out — but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“… And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. …
“‘Jesus, help me! I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much.’ …
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.
“And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“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’s Teachings on Forgiveness
Corries explains to her readers what forgiveness is and is not. First, she writes, “forgiveness is not an emotion,” a feeling. Nowhere in the Christian Scriptures is a believer told to wait until he or she feels like forgiving his or her offenders. If that were the case, then a person may not forgive at all, because, usually, feelings themselves are not forgiving.
Second, Corrie says, “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” A person’s will, the faculty of choice, must override the feelings, choosing to forgive his or her offenders. From that act of forgiveness, feelings may follow or they may not.
Third, not forgiving the offender is self-destructive, “poisoning” a person’s mind or soul, imprisoning him or her with bitterness and even hatred. Corrie writes,
“Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.”
By not forgiving the offender, he or she has an emotional “hold” on a person, exercising power over his or her life. Therefore, for the sake of the person who has by violated, wounded, in order for him or her to move on with his or her life, forgiveness should be granted to the offender.
Fourth, Corrie teaches that forgiveness is not necessarily a one-time, once-for-all event. Rather, it is an on-going struggle to let go of the emotional hurt or pain inflicted on a person by his or her offender. In Corrie’s words,
“And having thus learned to forgive in this hardest of situations [the Nazi prison guard], I never again had difficulty in forgiving: I wish I could say it! I wish I could say that merciful and charitable thoughts just naturally flowed from me from then on. But they didn’t.
“… [S]ome … Christian friends whom I loved and trusted did something which hurt me. You would have thought that, having forgiven the Nazi guard, this would have been child’s play. It wasn’t. For weeks I seethed inside. But at last I asked God again to work His miracle in me. And again it happened: first the cold-blooded decision, then the flood of joy and peace.”
In her own way, Corrie knew the struggle of the Jewish people, for upon their release from the Nazi concentration camps, they, too, had difficulty forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Promoting Christian-Jewish Relations
While Corrie recognized that many Christians in her day were responsible for virulent forms of anti-Semitism, she had learned from the faith of her father to have a deep respect for the Jewish people. She put her faith into practice, becoming an activist, saving many Jewish lives. And for her good works and valiant efforts, on December 12, 1967, Corrie ten Boom was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. On July 22, 2007, Yad Vashem also recognized Casper and Betsie ten Boom as Righteous Among the Nations. Corrie, her father and sister have also received recognition in the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.