Corrie ten Boom’s Faith to Forgive the Unforgivable

“This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person he puts in our lives, is the perfect preparation for the future than only he can see.”

So wrote Corrie ten Boom in her autobiographical book, The Hiding Place. These words ring true—from protecting and caring for children with nowhere to go to preserving the lives of Jews with nowhere to hide, Corrie’s life testifies how God uses the past to prepare us for the future.

The watchmaker’s daughter

Born in 1892, Cornelia (Corrie) ten Boom was the fourth and youngest surviving child of a poor but generous Dutch Reformed couple, Casper and Cornelia ten Boom. After her birth the family moved to Haarlem, the Netherlands, where Casper took over the family watchmaking business. Their architecturally meandering home, containing the watch shop and two adjacent buildings, was affectionately nicknamed the Beje. It was often overflowing with extended family, customers, and a steady stream of visitors. Here they fed, sheltered, and gave what little they had to the disenfranchised in the community around them, an evidence of the family’s strongly rooted Christian belief in service to society and charity for those in need.

After 1918 the ten Booms housed displaced German families and fostered missionary children; this hospitality continued even after the deaths of Corrie’s aunts and mother. Especially dear to Corrie, she called these children her “Red Cap Club.” She later founded Christian girls’ clubs in Haarlem, and though she initially failed to receive a Bible training certificate, her gifting as a Bible teacher and her heart for children would make the enterprise flourish.

Like her elder sister Betsie, Corrie never married. Her older siblings started their own families as the two sisters worked diligently in the family home and business. Soon, Corrie took charge of the watch shop’s daily administration, and her pragmatic management actually made the profit Casper’s good intentions had not. Her gifts led to an apprenticeship, and in 1924 she became Holland’s first licensed female watchmaker. 

As the 1920s ended and the 1930s began, troubling changes in Germany made their way into Netherlands, though the rumbling of what was to come was still distant. Corrie’s brother Willem, a concerned pastor working with Jews in Germany, brought the news of Jewish persecution home. Corrie later wrote: 

When Willem was visiting and would not let us forget, or when letters to Jewish suppliers in Germany came back marked “Address Unknown,” we still managed to believe that it was primarily a German problem. “How long are they going to stand for it?” we said. “They won’t put up with that man for long.” 

But put up with it they did. As Hitler rose to power, promising a new era of prosperity and political domination, the humiliated and economically devastated Germans embraced their new leader’s rhetoric. Anti-Semitism rapidly wormed its way into German consciousness, laying the groundwork for public campaigns against Jews. November 9, 1938 saw the culmination of the situation in the Jewish purge known as Kristallnacht. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and launched Europe into World War II.

The Nazi Invasion

Holland stood in a precarious position after the Poland invasion. Neutral in World War I, Holland again claimed neutrality—a claim that Germany promised to respect. With confirmation of the safety of Dutch borders, Holland’s prime minister took to the radio on the evening of May 10, 1940, to reassure his people. But the war for Holland began only hours later with furious airstrikes throughout the country. 

Awakened by the bombings, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were praying earnestly when Corrie experienced a premonition—she, her family, and friends carried on an old wagon out of Haarlem to an inescapable fate. The German invasion of the Netherlands ended within days. Following the flight of Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina and the devastating bombing of Rotterdam, Dutch forces surrendered. German occupation began. 

For those like Corrie and her family, the first few months of the occupation were bearable. Meeting the criteria for ubermensch, the genetically desired qualities that Nazis felt constituted the Aryan race, the Dutch received a measure of leniency from German soldiers. Even so, citizens were required to carry identity cards to be produced on demand; ration cards replaced currency; curfews kept citizens indoors after 10 p.m.; and radios spewed German propaganda. 

Nazism gained traction and power with every passing month of the occupation, leading to Holland’s National Socialist Bond (NSB). A fascist organization sympathetic to the German agenda, the NSB endorsed Nazi anti-Semitism and recruited members aggressively. Power and privilege came with membership—more ration cards, coupons for clothing, better jobs, and the best housing. 

Armed with newly granted positions of power at every civic level, the NSB became the agency addressing Holland’s own “Jewish Problem.” Just as in Germany, terrorizing Jews was now public policy. Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized, synagogues burned, and those who bore the yellow star marking them as Jews vanished daily. NSB families eagerly settled in their newly vacant homes.

A safe house

These disturbing events along with the curtailing of their freedom to share Christ deeply affected Holland’s Christian population. In the spring of 1942, the ten Boom sisters faced a terrible personal choice: watch passively as their Jewish neighbors were deported or risk losing their lives to save them. Corrie was 50 years old when she joined the Dutch Resistance and offered the Beje as a safe-house for Jews and Resistance workers. 

For two years the ten Booms housed, fed, and relocated Jews and others (mainly Resistance workers) passing through. Despite the watchful eyes of the nearby SS headquarters, they miraculously obtained enough ration cards and other supplies and avoided detection. A secret room with a sliding panel was built in Corrie’s bedroom, and the Beje’s occupants drilled constantly to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

The worst came to pass on February 28, 1944 when the Gestapo raided the Beje. The six people living illegally in the house survived in the hiding place, but Corrie, her siblings, father, and nephews were arrested and transferred to Scheveningen Prison. There Casper ten Boom died. Though many of the others were released, Corrie and Betsie were sent first to Vught, Holland, and later to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp in Germany, in September 1944. 

Despite brutal conditions, abuse from guards, and the murder of prisoners around them, Betsie and Corrie ministered to the women in the camp, sharing the gospel from a small smuggled Bible and experiencing miraculous provision of their desperate needs. Even as many fellow prisoners turned to Christ, Betsie fell ill and died at Ravensbrück on December 16, 1944. On Christmas Day Corrie received orders of release, later discovered to have been a clerical error. 

By the time the war ended, some 110,000 Dutch Jews had been deported to concentration camps, along with many members of the Dutch Resistance. Three-quarters of these Jews never made it home, giving the Netherlands the second highest mortality rate among nations during the Holocaust. 

A worldwide witness

Corrie Ten Boom

In the years that followed, Corrie ten Boom rebuilt her life and her community by continuing the mission of her parents before her. Once again she opened the doors of the Beje, serving the needy, disabled, and broken of Haarlem both physically and spiritually. And, never neglecting the special place in her heart for children, Corrie restarted the Christian youth clubs that the German occupation had disbanded.

Possibly her most surprising and selfless service was to Dutch collaborators with the Germans. While the rest of society despised them, Corrie reached out to them instead, including Jan Vogel, the man who betrayed the ten Booms and catalyzed the Gestapo raid. Corrie shared her story and the great love and wide forgiveness found only in Christ. She even offered forgiveness to the guards who held her captive, including one who beat Betsie nearly to death at Ravensbrück. The story of the ten Boom sisters and their awesome God spread like wildfire over a spiritually dry and thirsty land, extending outward to the rest of the world.

Eventually, Corrie wrote several books detailing her experience and proclaiming God’s love. Her books and speaking tours touched millions of lives, which she continued faithfully until a stroke left her immobilized. Corrie died a war hero and an international witness to Christ on her ninety-first birthday, April 15, 1983.

You can still visit the ten Boom’s historic home, now converted into a public museum. It remains a testament to the family’s faith and sacrifice to this day. 

Share Corrie ten Boom’s bold faith with children through the Torchlighters Heroes of the Faith episode on her life, available on DVD and via streaming.  Our free downloadable curriculum including leader and student guides help children internalize Corrie’s compassion, courage, commitment to prayer, and forgiveness of her enemies.

And don’t forget to check out our children’s biography on Corrie, designed especially for emerging readers, with plenty of action and engaging art.  

Visit our homepage to meet the rest of the Torchlighters heroes!