Thursday, March 29, 2012

Forgiveness | Could you have done it?

{Written by Johanna}

{German words are italicized and definition's are provided directly after the word/phrase within parenthesis.} 

Wenn Gott nicht bereit waren, Sünde zu vergeben, wäre der Himmel leer (If God were not willing to forgive sin, heaven would be empty). This old German Proverb, which had been told me numerous times as a child, never held such intense meaning as it does for me today. As I sit here, safe within the walls of this church, I believe my heart has finally begun to heal. When I look into her eyes – as she speaks up at that platform – I see something there that not even she can express with mere words. It was the exact same the first time I saw her. 
     Within the span of six years, over 130,000 female prisoners passed through the foreboding walls of Ravensbrück camp system; around 26,000 were Jewish. I was there when she arrived at Ravensbrück concentration camp in the year 1944— nearly three years ago. That day I was stationed at the assessment, for we would be admitting several-thousand more women to the camp that day. 

     “Ruhig (quiet)!” It was Elfriede Muller, an SS aufseherin (matron) in the camp who took charge in the most effective— yet, on looking back, in a cruel— way. The frightened and worn-looking women immediately hushed, and awaited the dreaded words of the aufseherin. She continued, “At the first desk, you shall dispose of all belongings. Here at Ravensbrück you are entitled to nothing, and will keep nothing,” she went on, severely, “at the second desk you shall remove all clothing, and will be directed to the assessment station where you will be examined before entering the shower room. A prison dress and a pair of shoes will be handed to you in the shower room. That will be all you need in this camp.” 

     I shudder as I remember the gasps of despair. 

     Moments ticked by, and one by one I inspected the women and sent them through to the shower room. When suddenly one informed me her sister was ill. I cynically glared into her eyes, and that is when I first encountered that strange peaceful look – one which I could not hold long. Diverting my eyes past her to her sister, who was doubled over with nausea, I exclaimed hoarsely, “In the shower room. Make it quick.” 
     They turned and left, and I thought nothing more of them; until, I myself passed through the shower room, to the zugangblock (barrack where the new prisoners had to wait until they were assigned in a work team) where I informed the officer who was checking the now-dressed women into the camp that the next load was ready for the shower room. 
     “Send them in,” he said. 
     Before I could make my way back to my station, however, I spied the woman and her sister whom I had encountered earlier. 
     “Name?” the officer exclaimed, not bothering to look up from his check sheet. 
     “Corrie Ten Boom,” said she – she with those eyes of fire, which seemed to burn down to my very soul. 

     That same evening, as I was on my way to reporting for duty at the camp head-quarters, I walked just past one of the buildings where the women were crammed each night – and crammed they were; for nearly 1,400 women were sent to every building, forcing five, sometimes six, women in a bed at a time. As I walked by the paper-thin walls, I heard voices that made me stop suddenly. I leaned against the wall to hear more clearly. 
     “… who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing…” 
     I leaned back. I recognized the voice. It was that of Miss Ten Boom. I drew close to the wall once again. 
     “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 
     I gritted my teeth when I realized the woman had been reciting that so-called holy book of theirs. 
     “Jewish dogs…” I uttered under my breath. I leaned in once more. 
     “We should thank God for every single thing in this new barracks,” joined another voice. 
     Stunned by these words I pressed closer, thinking I had not heard correctly. The voice went on. 
     “For we are commanded to be thankful in all circumstances, not just good ones, Corrie.” 
     “What can we possibly be thankful for, Betsie?” exclaimed Corrie, who had just finished the recitation. 
     “Being together.” 
     “Oh yes,” Corrie paused momentarily, and commenced, “Thank you dear Lord for smuggling in your precious word too. And for the opportunity to be able to share your message of hope through these pages.” 
     “What are you doing?” 
     The sharp voice of Elfriede Muller rang from the darkness. I turned to face my interrogator. Should I report what I had heard? For a moment, I contested the thought. However, I smiled in a flippant manner, and replied coolly, “I have heard that the buildings are so full of fleas one could hear them through the walls,” I laughed, “it’s true.” 
     She smiled a wry smile, and cocked her head. 
     “Yet now I must be off to report for duty at camp-headquarters,” I raised my hand high, stamped my foot, “Heil Hitler,” and hurried away. 

     Although my legs seemed to carry me far away from the voices I heard behind that wall, my mind was there still. Questions agitated me with every step I took. Who was this Corrie Ten Boom? Should I report the bible which she had somehow smuggled in? No; I won’t. What harm could it truly do? Let them keep their precious book… 

     Weeks passed by. I had no more time to think about Miss Ten Boom. However, I did see her often. Friday was examination day; every woman was forced to strip and be examined by I as well as several other attendants; we had to look down their throats, check their teeth and examine between each finger. Often times I was on duty for breakfast, mittagstunde (lunch) and dinner; where I often watched as she shared what little kost (food) she had with others. 

     One morning at roll call, I overheard the chief attendant giving orders for Miss Ten Boom to take her sister back to the bunks. While I stood rigidly at attention, my eyes still followed the two; Corrie’s arms were rapped about her sister in the most loving manner. There was something very different about this Corrie Ten Boom. The icy wind whipped at their skirts, and every fragment of their bodies shivered violently. My attentions were soon turned away from the sisters, however. 
     I cringed at the sound of a nearby officer giving a woman, who had become suddenly ill, fünf-und-zwanzig (twenty-five knocks with a club); a common punishment at the camp. As he neared the twentieth stroke, her knees buckled and she dropped to the floor. Again and again, he beat her. Her screams haunt me to this day. 
     The inflictor yelled, “Rührt euch! (Still!) Be Rührt euch!” 
     Finally, she was motionless. They dragged her away. 

     The following morning, I was instructed to accompany the aufseherin to one building in order to bring a prisoner to the camp hospital. It was Miss Ten Boom’s sister, Betsie. She looked much worse than she had the morning before. “Can you get up?” I asked austerely. She tried to rise, but fell back in a spasm of coughing. I looked at Corrie, who stood by Betsie’s side. For a brief moment, I considered the harshness of their situation. 
     I soon recovered from this feeling of pity at the voice of the aufseherin, who yelled, “She appears to be a Schmuckstück (an expression used in Ravensbrück for the women in terminal state of weakness). You’ll have to drag her,” she said crudely, “or carry her.” 
     I gently picked Betsie up; as I did, I saw a wave of both worry and sadness cloud those keen eyes of Corrie’s. 
     “Might I go with her to the hospital? Please!” 
     I looked over my shoulder to see what the aufseherin would say, but she was already well on her way. 
     “Just to the hospital,” I whispered. 
     We advanced towards the door, and began making our way to the hospital. The hard snow crunched beneath our feet, and once again I watched as Corrie shook fiercely. She reached out to caress her sister’s face, yet shrank back when I said firmly, “Nicht (no).” Yet it didn’t keep her from speaking softly to her. 
     “Betsie. I’m here.” 
     “Corrie,” the invalid replied quietly, “you must tell them what we’ve learned here. You must teach them there’s no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” 
     Here I stumbled slightly, and Betsie was shaken to silence. I set my jaw and walked faster to the hospital, now in sight. 
     As we neared the door, Betsie calmly stated one last thing, “By the first of the year, Corrie, we’ll be out of here,” unable to go on for coughing, she spoke no more. 
     “Stand back,” I said, directing the command to Corrie. “You cannot come in here.” I opened the door to the hospital and shut it swiftly behind me. As I did so, I witnessed a heart wrenching sight as Corrie covered her mouth with her hand to suppress a sob. 

     Ten days later, as I was doing paperwork at the front desk in the hospital center, I witnessed Betsie being carried to the back room, where the dead were stored until they could be disposed of permanently. Later, the front door opened, and I felt a draft of cold air rush in. I looked up to see Corrie. 
     “Do you have a pass?” I muttered. 
     “Yes, of course,” she said, and handed me a small slip of paper. 
     I pointed her to the back door, “Two minutes,” I exclaimed. 
     My eyes once again followed Corrie as she hurried through the door. My pulse throbbed when I heard the sobs, unsuppressed this time. Unable to concentrate, I pushed the stack of hospital forms aside. I found Miss Ten Boom kneeling by the side of her sister’s body. 
     “Time is up. You must go now,” I confirmed, taking a hold of Corrie by the shoulders and softly yet firmly dragging her away. I knew if she stayed in such a state, she would be silenced forever. 

     I found myself drawn once again to that same place where I had heard the voices that one evening; for I was stationed to patrol the barracks for the night. I stole close to the wall, and pressed my ear to it once again. As I suspected, I heard voices from within. As I listened, I began to make out what was being said. They were holding a prayer meeting! I jumped back, and staggered away from the wall. I knew only too well that this could be the death sentence for those whose voices were heard from inside; yet, I also ascertained that if I didn’t report what I had heard, I would be killed. This was no longer just a bible; a mere unnoticed mistake. Meetings were strictly prohibited. 
     I returned to the front of the building, and commenced pacing up and down the Lagerstrasse (main street of the camp). Finally, I made up my mind. I would report that I heard sounds within the barracks. I would not, however, say it was a meeting of any kind; and most certainly not a prayer meeting! I turned on my heel, and started for headquarters. 
     Stepping out of the late-December air, I knocked on the chief-attendants door. No answer. Quietly, I turned the handle and peered in. The room was empty. I advanced towards the desk, with the intention of writing a note asking for summons on the morrow. However, my eyes wandered to a pile of folders lying in a box with the words, ‘Getötet warden (to be killed)’ imprinted on it. I cocked my head, trying to catch a glimpse of the top name. ‘Corrie Ten Boom’ it read. I gasped! I quickly sat down in a nearby chair. 
     Upon taking the folder, and opening it, I reviewed the form: 
Family name: Corrie Ten Boom
Given name: Cornelia Ten Boom
Date of birth: 15 April 1892
Place of birth: Amsterdam
Last place of residence: Barteljorisstraat 19, Haarlem
Street or provincial location: Holland
Prisoner number: 66730
Date of arrival in Ravensbrück: (this I was unable to make out.)
Ultimate fate of prisoner in Ravensbrück: (this was left blank.)
     Additional notes helped me piece together the rest of this extraordinary woman’s story. 

     Corrie had been the daughter of a clock-maker; Casper Ten Boon. They had been arrested for withholding Jews in their attic. Her family was found out due to an anonymous informant in 1944, and her father died 10 days later at Scheveningen prison where they were first held. Corrie’s sister, Nollie, brother, Willem, and nephew, Pater, were released; but Corrie and Betsie were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. The rest of her story I knew too well. 
     And upon the morrow, this woman was going to be sent to the gaskammer (gas chamber)! 
     I looked about; as if suspicious that someone may be watching me after all. I closed the folder, and lifted all of the folders within the nearby box inscribed, ‘Freigegeben werden (to be released)’; there I placed Corrie’s folder, and gently laid the original folders on top. 
     I quietly made my way towards the door, and stole out, shutting it behind me carefully. “May your God protect you, Corrie,” I breathed as I walked out into the night air. 

     Miss Ten Boom was released on the first of the New Year, just as Betsie had said. I was discharged that same year in April, Germany had fallen and the concentration camps were shutting down. Finding a new life outside of them was difficult for me. The sights I had seen, the voices and sounds I had heard, and the terror and fear which I had helped inflict seemed to haunt me day and night. I was restless. I felt as if a weight was hanging over my life; one which crushed my spirit further into depression every day. 

     I read this morning in the Berliner Zeitung that a woman by the name of Corrie Ten Boom would be speaking at a nearby church. I at once found the address, and made my way to the appointed place. I took a seat near the back, knowing that I – a former concentration camp guard – would not be welcome to Miss Ten Boom. But now, as I listen to her words, and look into those eyes, I find I was wrong. 
     “…healing is happening in Holland. But today, I find myself standing in Germany; for, as I crossed the border, I felt as if a weight fell from my shoulders, and I was letting a hurt which had embittered my heart finally heal. You see, I found that at first I was unable to forgive the Germans; those who had caused the death of both my father and sister, and so many more innocent people.” 
     I should have never come, I thought. My emotions broke down, and I bent my head low, running my fingers through my hair. Tears burned in my eyes, and my heart wanted to break as the horror scenes from the concentration camp revisited my mind. 
     Corrie went on, “But the more room I gave towards this hate, the less room I had for love. And slowly, I found forgiveness was the only way. The Bible says ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’” 
     I slowly looked up, lowering my hands to my face. Unconsciously, I held my breath; my heart seemed to pound loudly, and I hung on every word. She continued, “God wishes to teach you – the German people – love. Great hatred has been cast forth from some people in this country. But God wants to replace the hatred of this nation by teaching of love; of His love; the love that can wash away all sins – the love that forgives all sins – the love that sets you free…” 
     Whatever words Miss Ten Boom said henceforth, I didn’t hear. The message which she had just shared was too overwhelming. The love that sets you free! At that moment, I too felt as if a weight had fallen from my shoulders. Could it truly be that Corrie forgave me? Was it possible for there to be a God who would give His life in order to forgive my sinful wretchedness? 
     Suddenly, I was aroused from my reflections by the clapping and standing ovation all around me. Corrie had finished and was making her way through the crowd. 
     I must speak with her, I thought, somehow
     I pushed through the crowd till I stood just behind Corrie. “Miss Ten Boom?” I appealed. 
     She turned, and looked me in the eye. I saw her jaw tighten, and heard a small gasp. A blush of shame came over my face, as those eyes seemed to pierce my own. Yet this time, I would not look away. I needed to truly know if she meant what she had said about forgiveness. 
     “Ah, I see you recognize me.” I stated, still holding her gaze. 
     “You were at Ravensbrück.” She said, unable to hide the emotions that betrayed her discomfort. 
     “Ja (yes), I was,” I swallowed, “Danke (thank you), Miss Ten Boom, for the message you shared with us today.” I paused, briefly and went on, “To think that, as you say, He,” I pointed upward, “has washed my sins away.” 
     Miss Ten Boom was silent. 
      I diverted my eyes towards the ground, yet hastily looked up again and whispered, “Well… I just wanted to offer my sincere gratitude to you. You have changed my life with your message. And…” 
     My voice seemed to quiver, and I recomposed myself before going on, “I hope that, someday… you may find it in your heart to forgive me.” 
      I turned to leave; my heart pulsated as if all joy was being crushed in the fist of remorse and hopelessness. 
     Suddenly I felt a hand upon my shoulder, I turned around and Corrie clasped my hand in hers. Tears welled up in her eyes – those beautiful, peaceful eyes. And for the first time, I was unafraid to meet her gaze. 
     She whispered passionately, “I already have.” 

~*~ 

Ever since I was a little girl, the miraculous story of Corrie Ten Boom has fascinated me. Every single aspect of her life seems to radiate with the incomprehensible  plan of God, and serves as a constant reminder that everything works out to the glory of those who love Him. {Romans 8:28}

Over the years, as I have delved more deeply into her story, I am awed by the seemingly little details that make up the whole of her tale; the Jews she hid in her attack managed to escape, unharmed; when being taken inside Ravensbrück, she managed to slip a bible under the watchful eyes of the Nazi's due to a sudden nausea attack her sister, Betsie, had suffered; because of the flea's that infested the barracks, camp guards stayed away, and Corrie was able to have secret prayer meetings; and finally, Corries release had been a clerical error -- all women her same age were put to death following the week of her release! And these are only a few of the miraculous circumstances that put together her amazing tale of survival. 

However, I think one of the most amazing parts of Corrie's story, is when I realize her willingness to forgive those who had done her wrong. 

For a brief moment, I want you to imagine yourself in Corrie's shoes; imagine living in a completely peaceful world, where love abides within your heart and those of your neighbors; you live happily and contentedly in your little home, and thrive on caring for others, and serving the Lord. Now, imagine this life being shattered suddenly, one May afternoon, when Nazi Germany invades your beloved country, and slowly begins to change everything you had ever known. Imagine living with suppressing regulations, such as turning in all radios to the police, taping up all ground-floor windows, watching as your neighbors are branded with Jewish Stars, and not being able to go out past 6 pm. Imagine lying awake at night, unable to sleep as gunshots ring through the air; and you know that another Jewish victim was just killed. 

Now fast-forward a few months: you are being taken to prison for harboring six Jewish people in your attic. Ten days after your arrival at this horrible place, your beloved father dies. While the rest of your family is released, you and your sister are sent to a concentration camp; where you will live for the next 10 months of your life. During your life here, you stand by as you watch prisoners being beaten or shot to death, you are starved, Nazi guards beat you and your sister. Soon, your sister becomes so ill she is dragged to the camp hospital, and a few days later, after lying unattended, she dies as well. 

You are now left alone. In the cruel hands of the Nazi camp guards. With nothing but your faith to help you through. Suddenly, on the first of the new year, you are released; without reason. Shortly after your release, you feel the Lord calling you to go on a world-wide ministry -- which will take you to over 60 countries, in the next 32 years of your life -- to help others heal from the traumatic experiences they suffered during the Holocaust. You emphasize forgiveness as you go; encouraging others to forgive those who had done them wrong. 

And than one day; one fateful afternoon...

You are at a small church in Germany -- this is three years after you were released from the concentration camp. You share a message with the German people, telling them of how God's love can wash away all sins and set them free from guilt. After you have finished, as you begin making your way out; you here your name called. You turn, and gasp. Standing not five feet from you is the cruel concentration camp guard; the guard who beat you, starved you, took part in killing your sister, laughed at you, tortured you... -- and not only you, but thousands of other innocent women. And here he is now. Begging you to forgive him.

Girls, my question for you today is: if you were in Corrie Ten Boom's shoes, could you have done it? Could you have forgiven this cruel man, who had scarred your life with such excruciating pain? Could you have clasped his hand in yours and told him, in truth, that you had forgiven him? 

When I look to Corrie Ten Boom's story, I am convicted beyond words. To think that she could find forgiveness for a man such as this; one who had been so malicious and heartless; one who had never shown mercy. My own spirit of forgiveness pales in comparison, when I think of how hard it is for me to forgive a sister or a friend for a small wrong they had committed against me, such as breaking a tea-cup or staining a favorite fabric.


At times, forgiveness seems to be an impossibility. Something that is completely, and utterly out of the question. How could Corrie Ten Boom have possibly found forgiveness in her heart for such a man? And when looking at certain situations in my own life, I have to ask; how can I possibly forgive that person for doing this to me? The answer is: we can't. Forgiving, on our own, is impossible. It takes more than our willingness to forgive. 

I believe Corrie Ten Boom put it best when she wrote of the encounter she had with the former concentration camp guard, in her book, The Hiding Place :: 
"For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never know God’s love so intensely as I did then. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness, any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself."
Forgiveness isn't a commonplace aspect; it is a God-given gift; given to those who ask for it. Today, I ask you to pray with me; join me in calling out to the Lord, pleading with Him to share with us the true spirit of forgiveness. On our own, we are weak, and unable to assume such an enormous task; but with God, all things are possible. Don't waste another moment. 

3 Words of Grace:

b3 beader said...

Johanna, this is amazing! I love Corrie Ten Boom, & this post explained her situation beautifully. Thank you so much!

Johanna said...

~ Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I too love the story of Corrie Ten Boom, and this post was a blessing for me to write.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Johanna!
Emily J.