Corrie ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den

Chapter 1

The cold metal of the handcuffs chaffed at Corrie’s wrists. Her left arm was handcuffed to her older sister Betsie, and her right arm to her father, and each of them was handcuffed to someone else. Together, the chain of handcuffed people stumbled along the alley towards Smedestraat. The morning snow had melted into gray puddles that lay on the cobblestones. With each footstep, icy water splashed onto Corrie’s legs. The group’s Gestapo escort barked at the prisoners in German, trying to make them move faster, an order impossible to carry out. It was well after curfew, and not a speck of light lit the street. It was all Corrie could do to keep herself and her father from losing their balance and falling. There was no way they could march at the pace their German captors wanted. Corrie’s eighty-four-year-old father simply couldn’t go any faster, and neither could Corrie, who was sick with the flu. The soldiers had dragged her out of her bed, and she felt so weak that with every step she took, she had to fight the urge to give up and collapse onto the cold, wet cobblestones.

As they stepped from the alley out onto Smedestraat, Corrie wondered whether she would ever again see the Beje, the house where she had lived nearly all her life. Would she ever again mend watches in its ground floor repair shop? And would her father’s cigar smoke and the delicious aroma of Betsie’s fresh-baked bread ever fill the house again?

It didn’t take long to reach their destination: Haarlem police headquarters. For all of Corrie’s life, police headquarters had been a place of safety and protection. It was where you went for help, or to report a stray dog you had found in an alley, or to inquire about your lost purse or wallet. But now it had become a place where people were taken and never heard of again, a place of fear and betrayal where ugly, unspeakable crimes were committed. These days, residents of Haarlem avoided police headquarters at all costs. Fear and dread squeezed Corrie’s stomach as the large wooden door to the building swung open and the group was herded inside.

The glare of the lights overhead stung Corrie’s swollen, blackened eyes as the line of handcuffed prisoners was led down a corridor into the old gymnasium at the rear of the building. The gym floor was covered with thin mats, and small clusters of other tired, bloodied, and bruised people sat or lay on the mats. Corrie and her family were obviously not the first prisoners to be rounded up that night. Those already on the mats hardly stirred. Some just looked at the new group of prisoners as they were led into the room. It was better if the Gestapo didn’t know who recognized whom.

Finally, the handcuffs were removed, and Corrie ran her hands over her battered and bruised face. The pain was still intense, but it would pass. What was important was that Corrie hadn’t given up any of the information the Gestapo officer had tried to beat out of her. The secret of the “Angels’ Den” was safe. For that, Corrie was thankful. A few cuts and bruises were a small price to pay for saving the lives of the six people hidden inside the secret room.

By now, Corrie longed to lie down on one of the thin mats on the floor and sleep. The flu made every joint in her body ache, her throat was raspy and sore, and her chest heaved with every breath she took. But instead of letting her collapse onto a mat, the German guards pushed her into a line of people that stretched to a single desk at the far end of the room. As minutes gave way to hours, Corrie steadied herself against the wall and wondered how much longer she could keep standing. Her body shook, both from the effects of the flu and from the shock that had finally settled over her about what was happening. She was scared, more scared than she’d ever been in her life.

Eventually she reached the front of the line. She was asked her name, age, address, names of relatives, activities she was involved in, and her movements during the past month. The questions seemed to go on and on. Even though she felt groggy and weak, Corrie knew the Gestapo interrogator behind the desk was trying to trap her into admitting something or giving up the secret of the hidden room. She prayed silently that God would help her to not say the wrong thing.

Frustrated at not being able to trap her, the interrogator finally waved her on, but Corrie stood nearby as her father was interviewed. Casper ten Boom answered each of the interrogator’s questions clearly and proudly. After a few moments, a higher-ranking Gestapo officer walked over and looked at Corrie’s father and then at the notes the interrogator had made. Corrie held her breath. Was something wrong?

Finally, in perfect Dutch rather than German, the officer spoke. “What is this old man doing here? The Reich does not want to baby-sit the old or the infirm; let someone else do that. You can go home, old man. Just promise you will not get mixed up in any of this underground nonsense again.” There was a hint of kindness in the officer’s voice.

Corrie watched as her frail father pulled himself up to his full height. Her father looked squarely into the officer’s eyes and replied, “If you let me go, tomorrow morning I will open my doors again to anyone who is in need of my help. And I feel great pity for you; when you arrest a Jew, you touch the apple of God’s eye.”

“Judenhilfe!” All hint of kindness had vanished from the Gestapo officer’s voice. Instead his cheeks were flushed with rage.

Corrie then watched as her father bowed his head slightly to the officer, as though he had been paid a compliment. And Corrie knew in her father’s eyes he had. The officer had just accused Casper ten Boom, clockmaker of Barteljorisstraat, Haarlem, of being a Jew helper.

“Sit down with the others, old man,” the Gestapo officer snarled.

The bells of St. Bavo Church had already chimed one o’clock in the morning of February 29, 1944, when Corrie finally got to slump down onto the mat on the floor. Corrie was huddled together with her father, her older sisters Betsie and Nollie, her brother Willem, and her nephew Peter. As she lay there, too sick, sore, and exhausted to move, Corrie wondered what would happen next. Would the nightmare that had overtaken Holland ever end? Would things ever be the same again? How she wished Holland could return to the beautiful, calm, peace-loving country it had been before the Germans invaded. Violence, misery, hatred and death had all seemed so far away then. Life did have its hardships, but those hardships seemed so unimportant compared to those they now were forced to bear. And now this final hardship could well cost the ten Boom family their lives.

Yet scared as Corrie was about what lay ahead of her, this wasn’t the first time she’d faced the possibility of her death.

Chapter 2
A Very Modern Invention

Corrie, you look hot. Come here and let me feel your forehead.” Seventeen-year-old Corrie walked slowly over to her mother. She didn’t want to admit it, but her mother was right. She’d been feeling sick for quite a few days now, ever since school had finished. “I think we’ll have Dr. Blinker examine you this afternoon when he comes to look in on Tante* Bep,” continued her mother.

Corrie nodded. Tante Bep had tuberculosis, and although there was nothing more medically that could be done for her, the doctor came once a week to visit her anyway.

The large Frisian clock in the hall struck two o’clock as Dr. Blinker arrived. The doctor hurried up the narrow corkscrew staircase to the third floor where Tante Bep lay coughing. When he was finished, her mother asked the doctor to examine Corrie.

Corrie sat on her bed as Dr. Blinker ran his hands over her back, tapping the top of his fingers every few inches. He listened to her breath with a stethoscope, and then he tapped her back some more. Finally, he cleared his throat and asked, “How long have you felt sick?”

“For about two weeks,” replied Corrie.

“And do you feel weak and dizzy, too?” the doctor inquired further.

Corrie nodded.

“Wait here,” said Dr. Blinker as he hurried from the bedroom and down the stairs.

Corrie waited and wondered what might be wrong with her. Five minutes passed; she counted each minute off on her wristwatch. Then she heard footsteps on the stairs. She looked up as her mother and father entered the room. Her mother had tears running down her cheeks.

“What is it?” Corrie asked, realizing something was very wrong.

It was her father who answered. “Dr. Blinker says you are sick. You have tuberculosis, and you must stay in bed until your temperature goes down.”

Corrie could feel the color draining from her face. Thoughts flooded her mind as she tried to make sense of what she’d just heard. Tuberculosis like Tante Bep? Tuberculosis, which you surely died from?

“It’s not fair,” she finally blurted. “I’m only seventeen; Tante Bep is an old woman.”

Her mother walked over and put her arm around her youngest daughter. “I know it will be difficult, Corrie. The best thing you can do to help yourself is go to bed like the doctor said. I’ll come and sit with you in a few minutes.”

Corrie didn’t feel sick enough to be in bed, but she needed time to think, so she pulled back the quilt and climbed in. She took her hand mirror and examined her face as she unwound her long brown hair from its bun. She didn’t look very sick; her blue eyes were a little bloodshot, and she looked flushed, but not deathly ill. Not yet, anyway, she told herself grimly as she laid her head back on the pillow.

As she lay there on that summer’s afternoon in 1909, Corrie tried to remember everything she’d ever heard about tuberculosis. Tante Bep was one of three of her mother’s sisters who lived with them in the house everyone called the Beje (pronounced Bay-yay). She had been sick with tuberculosis for a year. It wasn’t talked about much, but her mother had told Corrie that Tante Bep would die from the disease. Everyone who caught tuberculosis eventually died of it. Some rich people went to sanitariums, where they lay outside in the fresh air, and that helped a little, but as far as Corrie knew, there was no cure for tuberculosis.

The days passed. Corrie didn’t feel any sicker, but she didn’t feel any better, either. The doctor had left strict instructions that she wasn’t to get out of bed until her temperature went down. Unfortunately, it just wouldn’t seem to go down. So she kept on lying in bed.

Although her bedroom was on the third floor, Corrie had only to look at her wristwatch to know exactly what was going on in the rest of the house. Her family was as punctual as the clocks her father, Casper ten Boom, repaired.

At exactly 8:15 in the morning, Corrie’s father would go down the stairs to the dining room, where two slices of bread, one brown and one white, and a cup of coffee would be waiting for him. At 8:30, when he’d finished his breakfast, he would take the huge black leather Bible off the shelf and read a chapter out loud. Then he would lead the family in morning prayer, always ending with a special prayer of blessing for Wilhelmina, queen of the Netherlands. Everyone in the house except those sick in bed were expected to be at the morning Bible reading and prayer.

After breakfast and devotions, Corrie’s father would begin his workday in the clockshop. Meanwhile, Corrie’s mother and her sister, Tante Anna, would start the housework. When the work started, Tante Jans, her mother’s other sister who lived with them, would usually have somewhere “important” to go.

As the bells of St. Bavo Church chimed midday, lunch would be set on the huge oval table in the dining room. Once again, everyone in the house came, and often Casper ten Boom would invite one of his customers in for the meal. Dinner was served promptly at 6 P.M. Last of all, Corrie’s father would read another chapter of the Bible at 9:15 in the evening before climbing the stairs at 9:30 for bed. On his way to bed, her father would always stop and pray for Corrie and kiss her goodnight. He had done so for as long as she could remember.

The first few weeks after becoming ill, Corrie had lots of visitors. She had just finished high school, and many friends came to tell her about their plans. A number of the girls were going to be nannies, and two of the boys said they were going to Leiden to train as pastors in the Dutch Reformed church. Corrie told them all she could remember about Leiden. She’d visited her older brother Willem there, two years before when he was training to be a pastor.