Stepping off the midnight train on New Year’s Day

Corrie Ten Boom

“I can’t imagine a man enjoying a book and only reading it once.”

CS Lewis

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

CS Lewis

“Clearly, one must read every good book at least once every 10 years.”

CS Lewis

CS Lewis apparently felt that even in an endless sea of books the people of the world are apt to produce, the truly great ones are worth a re-read, even over exploring a new one.

I am a big re-reader.  There is just something about settling in with a beloved story, being well-acquainted with the characters that walk around in the pages, and re-entering a world that you had momentarily left, but never forgotten.  Re-readings might not bring those shocking moments one experiences on first readings of discovering a story as it unfolds, but if it is a truly great story, you will always learn something new or observe some little detail of the world that you never noticed before.

One of the books I have found myself re-reading over and over through the years is the autobiographical The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (with John and Elizabeth Sherrill).

I’ve bought myself several copies throughout the years because I keep giving my copies to other people since I feel strongly that everyone should read Corrie’s story.  All the people I have introduced to her story have come back to me wanting to discuss the powerful insights that they have gathered from reading about this lady’s life.

It was 74 years ago that a clerical error caused Corrie to be released from Ravensbrück after being passed around concentration camps over the course of ten months.  Her beloved sister and best friend Betsie had died a mere two weeks before.  Corrie was mistakenly released one week before her scheduled execution.

Corrie arrived in Berlin on midnight of New Year’s Day 1945.

“We reached the huge, bomb-gutted terminal in Berlin sometime after mid-night.  It was New Year’s Day, 1945.  Betsie had been right: she and I were out of prison….”

Corrie Ten Boom from The Hiding Place

Backing up to the beginning, Corrie’s story began humbly.  She was the daughter of a respected Dutch watchmaker, who found herself at the middle of her life single and living above her father’s watch shop where she worked, along with her father and her sister Betsie who also never married.  Then came the days when they found themselves facing “evil’s hour” as she put it as war came to her door.

It’s this humble beginning that is one of the most compelling parts of Corrie’s story to me; it’s not the resistance to the growing evil that she builds in her community and her determination to protect the innocent, it’s not the harrowing events she survives, or even the life she lives after she regains her freedom and spends her days spreading her message of hope and love.  I love all of these aspects of Corrie’s story, but the most intriguing part, is how ordinary Corrie was when the most famous parts of her life story began.

When Corrie describes herself and her early life in The Hiding Place, she uses words like spinster (I really can’t stand that word myself) and recalls lost love and broken dreams.  She’s human and readily admits her struggles.  She recalls the early pattern her life took settling into life at the watch shop, when she became the first licensed woman watchmaker in Holland:

“And so was established the pattern our lives were to follow for over twenty years.”

Corrie Ten Boom from The Hiding Place

It was not until age 48 that Corrie found herself facing the growing evil that was spreading as the Nazis widened their control, and she was thrust into a new life as a ring leader for the resistance in her community.  She worked with the Dutch underground, helping to aid Jews in finding safe places, and opened up her own home, even her own room since the secret “hiding place” was built into a cupboard in the wall by her bed.  She utilized the black market of ration cards to keep families fed, and never turned anyone away from her door who came looking for help.

“Ostensibly we were still an elderly watchmaker living with his two spinster daughters above his tiny shop.  In actuality the Beje was the center of an underground ring that spread now to the farthest corners of Holland”

Corrie Ten Boom from The Hiding Place

Before age 48, Corrie was an ordinary, working woman, who used her spare time and resources to help those around her in her town, until an even greater need came along.  And she was there ready to meet that need because unknown to her all those years of working with foster children, disabled children, and Haarlem’s most needy individuals, she had been being prepared for an even greater mission.  The heartaches she suffered early in life were in her own words preparing her for “darker rooms than this.”

And through those darker rooms she traveled.  Within the walls of Ravensbrück, she describes horrors that the human mind can scarcely take in.  She watched her sister’s naked, lifeless body be carried off to a cold shower room turned morgue.  She held hands with the dying.  She was beaten.  She nearly froze to death.  She witnessed humanity at its very worst.

But somehow, instead of making her bitter and sending a barrier of indifference up around her heart as a shield, she opened up her heart to love even more.  Even to love those who had caused all the pain she had known.

And Corrie would be the first to say that it wasn’t through her own strength she was able to love those who had hurt her and her family, but strength she had found through her faith in God in whom she placed all her hope.  While Corrie’s sisters Nollie and Betsie would do irrational things like refuse to lie to Nazi soldiers about their underground activities or offer prayers of thanksgiving for the fleas in the barracks of the concentration camp, Corrie was the cynic who questioned their very sanity.  But she kept her faith, and saw how the seemingly irrational could work together for a plan that would take her around the world before the end of her life, sharing the gospel of the Lord in whom she held her faith, even through the times it didn’t make sense.

On that New Year’s Day seventy-four years ago, Corrie stepped off a train in Berlin in the middle of the night, without a single worldly possession, in poor health from her time of abuse, scared, disoriented, and unsure where to go next as she had grown so accustomed to being given orders for every move to make.

But she took a step off the train.  Then another.  Then another, until she fulfilled the talks she had with her sister within the walls of Ravensbrück of building homes for those affected by the evils of the concentration camps- both prisoners and guards.  She traveled to every corner of the globe, telling people her story, about her faith, and the love that had changed her despite the world’s best efforts to leave her a broken shell.

It was New Year’s Day as she took those steps out into Berlin to go forth and to share love despite all that had happened to her.  I pray as a New Year is upon us, I can mimic even a small portion of that love and faith.

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