by Susan Evans
One day as Father and I were returning from our walk we found the Grote Markt cordoned off by a double ring of police and soldiers. A truck was parked in front of the fish mart; into the back were climbing men, women, and children, all wearing the yellow star. . . .
“Father! Those poor people!” I cried. . . .
– Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom
It is June 2008, and I am in Haarlem, a quintessential Dutch little town fifteen minutes’ train ride from Amsterdam. My hotel entrance opens up onto the vibrant Grote Markt where ten streets meet. Surrounding the busy square, the gothic Groote Cathedral and the renaissance-styled Vleeshal shine like architectural jewels in the sun. An art museum, originally the old fish market, sits on the shadow side of the Great Church. Cafe tables glint silver from several restaurants, and on market days stalls overflow with brightly colored fruits, cheese, fish, and flowers.
The afternoon is hot and bright. Under a wide blue sky, I go exploring down the cobblestone streets, and then meander around the canals under shade trees casting lacy shadows in the water. People of all ages — young fathers with children in baskets, professional women in suits and high heels, elderly people with vegetables in sacks — cycle by. When I tire, I circle back towards the Market Square, and wander down a street lined with glimmery upscale boutiques.
I notice a heavy green door near an alley on a corner building with a funny gabled roof. A sign on the door posts hours of operation for the Corrie ten Boom House. So this small brick building wedged into the cityscape was her family’s home and watch shop. I did not remember she had lived in Haarlem, but I do remember that famous symbol of Dutch resistance — the Hiding Place. I want to see it for myself.
The tour begins promptly at 10:00 the next morning. A woman guide ushers all of us history buff English-speakers into the downstairs of the narrow structure. The small parlor, furnished with period pieces from the 1940s with pale wallpaper, yellow and opal transom windows, and billowy white curtains seems feminine as a little girl’s dollhouse.
The docent speaks of World War II, the 1940 invasion and occupation of a neutral Holland, and Haarlem streets overrun with German tanks. Hard to imagine these sunny, trendy streets, alive with tourists and everyday citizenry peddling by on bicycles, in the altered light of occupied Holland. Only 68 years ago, men strutted down these streets in olive drab uniforms, while Jews, yellow stars fastened to their coats, furtively stayed to the shadows. The sky, not crystal blue like today, but more the color of ashes.
The docent says most of the Dutch in 1940 thought the war would be over soon, so they submitted, keeping their heads down, averting their eyes to the atrocities, hoping to protect themselves, their families, and their property. The price for rebellion too steep for most. Only a small minority risked everything — even their lives — to resist the Germans’ increasingly brutal domination.
I gaze at a family portrait on the parlor wall as the guide speaks of the ten Boom family – the elderly bearded father, and the 2 serious-faced daughters with upswept hairdos over high foreheads. Already in their 50s during the war years, the women look more like church ladies clicking knitting needles around a fireplace than fearless warrior women. And they actually were Dutch Reformed church ladies on the outside. But underneath, a different story: the same DNA as young David staring down the monstrous and powerful Goliath. Ironic that the Nazis thought women were helpless!
Although so many in Holland closed their eyes and doors to the Jews, the ten Booms said yes, and opened their small home to “all of God’s people” as Corrie’s father said — frantic and desperate Jews, resistance workers, intellectuals, and students seeking asylum.
The downstairs feels compressed and confining. Certainly not room enough for the ten Booms, and as many as 7 illegals seeking safe passage out of the country. How did they manage? But manage they did, smack in the center of Haarlem under the noses of the Nazis.
To signal that the shop was safe to enter, the family placed a triangular Alpina Clock sign in an upstairs window and installed an electric warning buzzer in case of a Nazi raid. Desperate times these.
The tour guide leads our group up the narrow stairs to see the hiding place. It is in Corrie’s old bedroom because her room was on the third floor — usually the last room searched. A member of the Dutch resistance built the hidden enclosure with donated supplies sequestered in by family and friends posing as customers, via boxes, bags, and in rolled up newspapers. A crude ventilation system, too, rigged up for breathing.
Now the wall is cut away to reveal the space to us tourists, but then, the secret room was concealed by a cupboard and behind a false wall. Looks about the size of a small closet, barely big enough to store a few coats and shoes.
Refugees practiced running up that tight staircase as fast as they could in order to reach the safety behind the fake wall. They had about a minute to scale the stairs, claw the cupboard door open, slide a panel, and crawl in on hands and knees before the downstairs door might burst open and the Gestapo stomp in.
The docent says that in February 1944, a Dutchman betrayed the family and told the Germans that Jews were hiding in the watch shop. Like a malevolent wind, the Nazis swept into the home. Concealed in the wall enclosure were two Jewish men, two Jewish women, and two members of the Dutch underground.
When the soldiers had no luck inside, but convinced that the Jews were in the house somewhere, they posted guards outside, hoping to starve fugitives out.
How six people survived, cowering in that small enclosure for any length of time, much less for the necessary 30 hours, I try to imagine. That thin wall between me and almost certain death; my insides twisted and coiled like a strand of barbwire; and my heart as if impaled by a jagged edge of a swastika. Aware that the lives of the other 5 people hinge on my silence. Dreading a cold blast of air hitting me at any minute before I’m yanked out by Germans and pushed through the streets of Haarlem to a train. And not knowing if I will perish from starvation. This hole in the wall — my coffin or my refuge?
Did those hunted souls hold trembling hands? Did they pray in that 30-inches deep closet? Did the 4 Jewish stars gleam softly in the dark illuminating the cold walls of their secret room?
Somehow, the six trapped people did remain concealed for nearly 3 days on one tin of biscuits, but with no water or bathroom, and unable to even lie down. Finally, an undercover Dutch police officer told the Nazis he would take over the watch and prevent anyone escaping from the house. After their long tortuous hours, the hideaways scrambled out from their small cell through an upstairs window.
As for the ten Booms, they were arrested and sent to labor camps. The father and Corrie’s sister never returned.
The guide said that after the war five of the fugitives were accounted for — the four Jews were taken to new “safe houses”. One underground workers was reported to be alive, the other’s fate unknown. Probably dead, everyone thought.
Years passed. Corrie ten Boom published The Hiding Place in 1971. In 1980, the old watch shop was converted into the Corrie ten Boom museum. Tourists came from all over the world after reading Corrie’s poignant book.
During a tour of the house — I suspect similar to mine — a docent escorted tourists around the museum. The guide followed the same script as our docent – stating that no one had ever heard what had happened to that last resistance worker in 1944. Had he reached safety or perished in the scourge of war?
There were the usual murmurs back then, as of now; the audience lamenting the probable death of this underground worker. But the normalcy of that tour abruptly ended when an older man, standing in the shadows, stepped forward and with tears in his eyes, said, “I am that man you speak of and I did survive.”
It had been over 40 years, but the Dutch underground worker returned, finally ready to face the searing memories of his past. The hiding place — that visible reminder of his 30 hours of horror and suffering mingled with a frantic, feverish hope. Those tortuous hours that defined the rest of his life. No other experience could ever compare — that time his life balanced like a feather on the scale of life and death.
A jolt goes through my 2008 tourist group. A shiver courses down my spine and tears sting my eyes.
A true miracle, when there seems to be so few in the world sometimes. And not only this man’s miraculous survival against the odds, but the miracle of an ordinary family’s faith and courage. The ten Booms saved nearly 800 Jews with only their tiny little shop, prayer, and an unyielding reliance on their Creator.
It is a reminder that Divine power transcends human weakness and evil intent, weapons and tanks and soldiers, tear gas, bombers, and death camps. Accessible to all, but only a few intrepid souls like the ten Booms tap into this universal power. But we all possess the right DNA — we ordinary people, just like the ten Booms — and during extraordinary times are given the grace and power to rise above the smoke and fire of evil to play larger roles in the service of humanity.
And I believe that, although we are not in the midst of World War II, the past matters as a testament and lesson for the present. And I believe that there always is and will continue to be a subliminal underground realm of compassionate souls, saints and angels in this dimension and in many others, that aid humanity anytime the storm clouds of bigotry, violence, and hatred threaten to consume the world.
About the author:
Susan Evans is a writer, international volunteer and traveler, and English professor in eastern Tennessee.