Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Once upon a time, a girl risked everything to do what was right. Her name was Corrie. From the time she was a small child, Corrie learned two things from her parents: how to make a broken watch tick and how to care for people in need. Her family always took in those less fortunate than themselves, so when Jewish people knocked on their door asking for sanctuary, Corrie knew just what to do. Her courage saved more than 800 people from persecution during WWII.
Amy Landecker is known for her portrayal of Sarah Pfefferman on the award-winning Amazon original series “Transparent.” Other TV credits include: Season 3 of “Sneaky Pete,” recurring opposite Giovanni Ribisi, “Room 104,” “Louie,” “Revenge,” “House M.D.,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “House of Lies.”
Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up in a house full of clocks. Her name was Corrie. Corrie’s father was a watchmaker.
Every day, Corrie ran down the steep, twisting staircase to step into the family watch repair shop, where a hundred ticking voices welcomed her like old friends. She would look over her father’s shoulder as he patiently gazed at the inner workings of each watch, explaining how every tiny gear had its own part to play in making this marvelous instrument tick. And when she grew up, she would join him repairing these delicate instruments.
But in 1940, World War II came to Holland. A dictator named Adolf Hitler was trying to take over Europe, and he had a terrifying plan, threatening and killing anyone who stood in his way.
With the same careful attention that she used to make watches run smoothly, Corrie started to do all she could to clog the gears of the machine Hitler had built to fulfil his evil mission.
The stakes were high, and she knew she could die trying.
I’m AMY LANDECKER. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Corrie Ten Boom.
<END THEME MUSIC>
TICK TOCK LIFE
The house where Corrie grew up had its own name: the Beje. It was a funny old place that was actually two houses. Facing the street, stood a skinny and stately old-fashioned Dutch home; behind it was an even skinnier house. The two buildings were connected by a creaky spiral staircase.
Corrie’s home was cozy—and crowded with family: her mother, father, one brother, two sisters, and three aunts. Full as the Beje often was, Corrie’s family never turned away anyone in need of a bed, a meal, or a friendly conversation.
When a local child needed a place to stay, Corrie set another place at the table for her new foster brother or sister. When someone in town was sick, Corrie’s mother packed a basket of food and set off to help. The scent of warm cake filled the kitchen and coffee bubbled on the stove, just waiting for the next knock at the door.
The Ten Booms were Christian, but their kindness was not only for people who shared their beliefs. The way Corrie’s family saw it, God asked them to care for everyone, not just those who spoke the same language or prayed the same way they did. So even as they worked in their shop and cared for their families, they also lived in constant service to others, giving the time, energy, and resources to help people in need.
As Corrie grew up, she joined her father in the shop, and became the first woman licensed as a watchmaker in Holland. Two of her siblings married and had children of their own, but Corrie and her sister Betsie stayed at the Beje, caring for their mother and aunts until they aged and passed away.
Though people came and went, some things would never change. Corrie and her sister went to concerts at the beautiful old cathedral every Sunday. They sat in pews worn smooth by hundreds of years of worshippers. Corrie felt her soul grow calm as she listened to beautiful music pour from a golden organ once played by Mozart himself. Every afternoon, Corrie and her father walked the cobbled streets of Haarlem, waving and calling to the people they saw every day. Life in Haarlem, it seemed, would never change.
But to the east, in Germany, much was changing indeed.
At this time, Germany was run by Hitler. He believed that anyone who didn’t fit into his idea of a perfect world should die. Hitler and his Nazi Party wanted to take over Europe, country by country, until the whole continent was inhabited by only one type of person.
One night in May of 1940, an explosion shook Corrie from her sleep. The Nazis had invaded Holland. For five days, Dutch forces battled bravely, but the small country was no match for the German army. Holland was now under Nazi occupation.
At first, things did not seem so different.
Then came small, scary changes. Rocks smashed through windows of Jewish shops. Ugly slurs were scrawled on synagogues. The Nazis wanted people in Holland to participate in this cruel treatment of their Jewish neighbors. How many people would accept The Nazi’s vile ideas?
Too many people did. Corrie began to see signs everywhere, in shops, restaurants, libraries, parks, and concert halls. They all said the same thing: “No Jews allowed.”
Things got worse. Watches that Jewish customers left at the shop for repair weren’t picked up, as if their owners had simply disappeared. And some of them had. Now on their daily walks, Corrie and her father were horrified to see soldiers taking away men, women, and children wearing the yellow stars that Jewish people were forced to sew on their clothes. Where were they taking them? No one would say.
Corrie started delivering directly to her Jewish customers, so they would not have to risk arrest by going outside. On one such visit, she interrupted a local doctor playing with his young children.
As she looked at him, she was struck with a horrifying realization: This family, and every Jewish family like them, was in constant danger. Any minute, a knock could come on the door. Any minute, this family could be forced into a truck and taken to prison—or worse.
Right there, Corrie said a prayer: “Lord Jesus, I offer myself for your people. In any way. Any place. Any time.”
Her old, creaky house would be the place and the time was coming very soon.
Two years into the Nazi occupation, there was a knock at the door.
It was a terrified Jewish woman holding a small suitcase. Police had raided her shop, and she believed she would soon be arrested. She needed somewhere to hide.
This trembling woman asked Corrie and her family to risk their lives for her—a stranger. It was against the law for anyone to offer a Jewish person sanctuary in their home. If Corrie said yes, there could be dire consequences.
By now, Corrie was 50 years old. She had no illusions about the dangers of the Nazi regime and knew just what to do.
“In this house,” said Corrie’s father, “God’s people are always welcome.”
Two nights later, an elderly couple knocked on the door in search of a hiding place. Corrie offered them a room, too. Then another knock came. And another. And another.
Soon, there were six people hiding from the Nazis in the Ten Booms’ old house. Every night, the family and their guests gathered together to read the Old Testament, and play music— pretending as if all was normal.
But if the police knocked on the door? Their Jewish friends would be rounded up, arrested, dragged off to prison, and maybe even killed. They needed a place to hide. But in a house already bursting at the seams, where could they go?
At this point in her life, Corrie was part of the Resistance, the secret network working together to help Jewish people and disrupt the Nazis’ plans. For every cruel policy the Nazis enacted, members of the Dutch Underground had to be all the more clever, all the more creative, and all the more brave to fight back and save lives.
When the network learned of the people in hiding at the Beje, they sent a man to pay a visit. Before the war, he had been one of the most famous architects in Europe, but there, in Corrie’s old house, he faced one of his greatest challenges yet.
As he walked through the building, with its uneven walls and rickety stairs, he started to laugh. It was perfect! The house was already so full of odd nooks and crannies that it would be easy to create another: a secret room.
A team of men built a new wall in Corrie’s bedroom concealing a space behind it just big enough for six adults to hide. When Corrie walked in and saw the finished work, she couldn’t believe it— the new wall had been painted to look as old and water-stained as the others. She had lived in that room for 50 years, and even she could hardly tell the difference.
At the bottom of the wall, hidden underneath a shelf, a sliding panel was the only way in and out of the hiding place. Over and over again, everyone practiced what to do if the Nazis arrived. Corrie, Betsie, and their father would try to distract the officers with conversation; the Jewish people in the house would race to the room before the soldiers could search the rest of the building. Every second counted against their lives.
And then the day they feared would come…did.
Corrie was sick in bed with the flu. She awoke to her Jewish friends racing frantically past her, diving through the tiny trap door into the secret room. What was happening?
Corrie sat up and looked around. She burned with fever. Through the haze of her sickness she stumbled to reach for a briefcase full of important documents, containing names and addresses of people in the resistance and those in hiding. She threw it into the secret room as the last person slipped into the passageway and closed the door—just seconds before a Nazi officer walked into her bedroom.
“Where are you hiding the Jews?” he demanded, dragging her downstairs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Corrie.
The officer slapped her across the face, so hard she tasted blood. All she could think about were the people hidden upstairs. Do not make a sound, she prayed.
“Where is your secret room?” the officer shouted.
Corrie was silent. He struck her again. But she said nothing. She would not betray her friends.
Corrie, her sister Betsie, her elderly father, the shops’ employees, and even resistance workers who had arrived after news spread about the raid were all arrested and taken to prison. Corrie would need a whole new kind of courage now.
In prison, guards seized Corrie’s valuables: her wristwatch and her mother’s ring. The men were separated from the women. Because they knew she was part of the resistance, the Nazis put Corrie in solitary confinement to suffer alone.
Prisoners slept on filthy straw mattresses and had barely enough to eat. The deprivation was too much for many people. After 10 days of this mistreatment, Corrie’s father died.
Prisoners were allowed mail, even though the guards read all their letters first. One day, Corrie received a letter that said simply, “All the watches in your cabinet are safe.” It was code—the people hidden in her home had escaped!
Corrie and Betsie held on. They were transferred from prison to prison, until at last, they arrived in Ravensbruck, the notorious women’s prison camp in Germany. This was the cruelest place of all. Prisoners were forced to rise at dawn and stand for hours in the cold before beginning a day of backbreaking labor. Many people died, including Corrie’s beloved sister, Betsie. It was
heartbreaking, but Corrie refused to let the camp’s cruel conditions take away her humanity.
And then, twelve days later, the prison guards called her name. They gave back her wristwatch and her mother’s ring.Then they put her on a train and sent her home to Haarlem.
One week later, every woman her age still held in Ravensbruck was executed. Her name, she later found out, was accidentally put on the release list because of a paperwork error. She called it a miracle.
Corrie spent the rest of her life traveling the world, talking about faith and forgiveness, sharing the courage that had kept her strong during the darkest time of her life.
She died peacefully on April 15, 1983, on her 91st birthday. According to Jewish tradition, only the most blessed and holy people have the good fortune to die on their birthday.