How a ‘watchmaker’s daughter’ hid hundreds of Jews beneath the Nazi occupiers’ noses
A new book explores how, by concealing them behind a false wall, Corrie ten Boom helped rescue hundreds of Jews and Dutch resisters from German clutches during World War II
HAARLEM, the Netherlands — A century before Corrie ten Boom hid Jews behind a false wall in her bedroom, the Dutch woman’s Calvinist grandfather invited neighbors into the same building each week to pray for the people of Israel.
In “The Watchmaker’s Daughter,” author Larry Loftis offers the first comprehensive English-language biography of Corrie ten Boom, who used her family’s home — and the watchmaking shop downstairs — to hide hundreds of Jews and Dutch resisters from the Nazis. The book hits shelves on March 7.
“Among Christian circles, her name is very well known,” said Loftis, author of several books about wartime intrigue.
“In Jewish circles, it is a mystery why Corrie’s name [is not more widely known] because both she and her father (Casper ten Boom) were inducted into Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations,” Loftis told The Times of Israel.
In the United States, ten Boom is best-known from “The Hiding Place,” a 1975 film based on her writings. To expand on that account, Loftis located and read ten Boom’s original writings, which are housed in Illinois at the Billy Graham Center Archives in Wheaton College.
During the hiding place’s operation atop the ten Boom store, several hundred Jews and Dutch resisters were hidden. Most of the refugees stayed for a matter of days — or hours — but several people lived in the house for months alongside the family.
In February 1944, a Dutch informant betrayed the hiding place, and Germans arrested the entire ten Boom family. More than 30 people were taken by the Gestapo, after which Corrie and other family members — including her father — were imprisoned in Scheveningen.
‘The apple of God’s eye’
A 15-minute train ride from Amsterdam, in much quieter Haarlem, the ten Boom home was converted into a museum in 1988, five years after Corrie’s death at age 91.
Before the pandemic, the Corrie ten Boom House received about 30,000 visitors each year, according to museum officials. (By way of comparison, the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam received 1.3 million visitors in 2019.)
Nestled in the middle of Haarlem’s old center, the museum is close to the cavernous Grote Kerk cathedral and — during the war — local German security headquarters. The ten Boom family not only operated a waystation for people fleeing the Nazis, but they did so underneath the noses of their enemies.
“There are many visitors who indicate that they think that the work and the love the ten Boom family showed for the Jewish people throughout the generations are very special,” said Jaap Nieuwstraten, curator and son of one of the museum’s co-founders, Frits Nieuwstraten.
Visitors to the museum gather alongside the shop window once used by the ten Boom family to signal it was safe for resisters to approach the building. At scheduled times, a museum guide arrives to read the names of people who pre-registered for tours.
After going up a staircase, visitors make themselves at home in the recreated ten Boom living room. They learn about the family’s tradition of spreading love for Jews, beginning in 1844 when Willem ten Boom invited neighbors into that same room to pray for the Jewish people.
The uncommon Dutch surname “ten Boom” translates to “at the tree,” and Casper ten Boom — Willem’s son — came to view Jews as “the apple of God’s eye.”
While Jews hid in his home, Casper encouraged them to observe Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. Most of the Jewish refugees, in turn, pitched in more than usual on Sundays, the holy day observed by their rescuers.
“Christians put their lives on the line, and sometimes sacrificed it, for the Jewish people,” Nieuwstraten told The Times of Israel.
At the top of the house is Corrie’s bedroom, where a false wall was constructed to hide up to six people. Dutch resistance workers equipped the space with a ventilation system and made other suggestions so refugees could hide during German arrest raids that sometimes lasted more than 24 hours.
Until three years ago, a watchmaker operated on the building’s ground floor. His desk remains between the museum bookshop and the entrance to the former living quarters, evocative of the shop’s wartime appearance.
“Out of principle, we do not charge an admission fee,” said Nieuwstraten. “We do so, because we believe that everybody should be able to hear the message of forgiveness, toleration, and love for the Jewish people for free.”
‘Tramp for the Lord’
Corrie’s father and lifelong role model — Casper ten Boom — died in a Dutch prison while incarcerated by the Nazis.
Soon after their father’s death, Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany, by way of Camp Vught.
While imprisoned in Germany, the ten Boom sisters used a smuggled Bible to conduct secret ministry work at night, converting many of their fellow prisoners to Christianity. Daytimes were occupied with brutal forced labor and constant harassment from guards.
“[Hell was] a field ripe for spreading Gospel and providing hope. In particular, she felt an obligation to minister to young girls,” wrote Loftis in “The Watchmaker’s Daughter.”
Betsie died while incarcerated, aged 59, but not before she and Corrie outlined the vision Corrie would later enact: to found a home for people convalescing after the war.
Fulfilling her promise to Betsie, shortly after the war Corrie opened a rehabilitation center in Bloemendaal, housing both refugees from the concentration camps and Dutch people who had collaborated with the Nazis.
“Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness,” wrote ten Boom in “Clippings from my Notebook.”
Ten Boom founded other rehabilitation centers in the Netherlands and returned to Germany in 1947, meeting with and forgiving a Ravensbruck guard who had been extraordinarily cruel to Betsie.
During the three decades after World War II, ten Boom visited 60 countries as a self-declared “tramp for the Lord.” After beginning adulthood as the first Dutch woman to become a certified watchmaker, she later favored analogies involving the craft.
“Lord, You turn the wheels of the galaxies. You know what makes the planets spin and You know what makes this watch run,” wrote ten Boom in “The Hiding Place.”
In the United States, ten Boom formed enduring friendships with inmates at California’s San Quentin Prison. The relationships ten Boom forged across the US inspired her to move to California, where she died in 1983.
Said to be treasured above all the gifts ten Boom received, a simple wooden plaque from the “men of the garden chapel” at San Quentin was engraved with her name and the words, “Prisoner of the Lord Jesus” in 1977.
In the assessment of Loftis, the decades of outreach conducted by Corrie after the war “outweighed” her wartime suffering.
“War is present in every generation, so resistance to aggression is common,” said Loftis.
“What makes Corrie’s story unique is that despite the loss of family members to the war, she forgave everyone: the Nazis, her guards at Ravensbruck, even the man who betrayed her family to the Gestapo,” said Loftis. “That is a lesson for everyone, young and old: forgiveness.”
Museum co-founder Frits Nieuwstraten agrees, adding that, “For thirty years, Corrie traveled the world, and spoke to millions the message of hope and forgiveness. She told people about God’s love, and the love we should have for the Jewish people,” Nieuwstraten told The Times of Israel.
“Corrie often said: ‘There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.’ Even now, 40 years after her death, Corrie’s experiences and books continue to encourage many people the world over,” said Nieuwstraten.
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