Originally published on The Rabbit Room blog; here follows a very slightly extended version.
I first “met” her in a book I’d pulled from my school’s closet-sized library.
Jewish refugees and resistance workers streamed through the welcoming doors of an old Dutch house, and a tiny, secret space was built into the uppermost bedroom to hide them. No needful face was turned away. The Ten Boom family prepared beds for frightened new residents and doled out cream puffs to make raid drills feel more like a game, all the while entrusting themselves and the people under their roof to God.
The Hiding Place is an honest and harrowing account of faith in fell times. But although the narrative is told by Corrie ten Boom, the most intriguing figure to me in all the book was her older sister, Betsie.
Betsie had a knack, I found, for viewing suffering through a brilliantly clear lens of trust in her Father.
“There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s world,” she spoke out of the pages to me, “And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety. . . let us pray that we may always know it!” I was comforted and dumbfounded by her perspective, right along with Corrie. When the road from the safe and cramped quarters of the Beje led to prison and two concentration camps, Betsie gave her possessions away to her cellmates. She prayed for the struggling women who surrounded her, going from one to another in a flea-ridden building to share treasured words from a smuggled Bible. She saw wounded souls in the eyes of her captors, and drew up plans for the day of their healing.
Betsie’s life of 59 years burned with a quiet luminescence, blazing forth with particular radiance in its last hour at Ravensbruck. Hers was one of immeasurable sacrifice, of constantly relinquishing her possessions and security and needs so that others might live. It was Christ’s love made tangible, and I hailed her as a hero in my growing catalog of stalwart saints.
But it wasn’t until years later that I returned to her story, this time in the wake of the breakdown, shrouded in darkness so thick I had forgotten how to breathe.
About two years ago this winter, I got in the car to make my regular nighttime run to the grocery store, and The Hiding Place was the only audiobook in the console. I never did remember to bring another CD from the house. Every time the book reached the end on those evening trips, I allowed it to loop back to the beginning. And as it did, certain questions started to take shape in my tired mind.
How did Betsie manage to meet suffering without giving way to fear and despair? How could she interpret the provision of something so small as vitamin drops in a concentration camp as an act of love from God?
How does one grow to face hardship, not with grim and gray countenance, but with such trust and peace, such expanse of soul?
Then, around the second or third time through the book, I began to notice something new.
The Beje was not without sorrows before the advent of the refugees. The watch shop that was its literal foundation and source of income frequently failed to bring in enough money to cover the weekly grocer’s bill. Mama had a stroke; Tante (Aunt) Bep contracted tuberculosis; Tante Jans was diagnosed with diabetes, which Corrie notes “in those days… was a death sentence.”
Yet in the midst of it all, the Ten Boom family made a home that actively celebrated its members, and all the beloved ones within its wide circle.
Mama could have coffee on the stove and a cake in the oven as fast as most people could say, ‘best wishes.’ And since she knew almost everyone in Haarlem, especially the poor, sick, and neglected, there was almost no day in the year that was not for somebody, as she would say with eyes shining, ‘a very special occasion!'”
Long before the Ten Booms ever joined the Dutch resistance, Corrie and her three siblings were taught by example to see the grace in every person and every difficulty the family faced. Betsie, especially, seemed to notice them in a particular way.
It was Betsie who started seedlings each spring for the Beje’s windowboxes, although the old house was so close to its neighbors that they never grew to maturity. She remembered every person who came through the watch shop, and the details they shared about their lives.
The story I grew to love most, however, began with Betsie coming down with a run-of-the-mill cold one winter. To aid her sister’s recovery, Corrie took over the responsibilities in the watch shop — and found, almost guiltily, that she loved it. After closing the books and locking up one evening, she caught Betsie coming through the alley door with her arms full of flowers:
“Betsie ten Boom!” [Corrie] exploded. “How long has this been going on? No wonder you’re not getting better!”
“I’ve stayed in bed most of the time, honestly–” she stopped while great coughs shook her. “I’ve only got up for really important things.”
Upon further investigation, the “really important things” turned out to be a more pleasing arrangement of dishes in the corner cupboard, and the removal of varnish from a gorgeous old wooden door. Sheepishly Betsie confessed how much she had enjoyed caring for the house in secret. “And so it was out,” Corrie notes with her dry, gentle humor; “we had divided the work backwards.”
From that point on, both the Beje and the watch shop flourished. Betsie made home a place where the eye was drawn to beauty in various textures and colors. She worked magic with the Ten Booms’ very limited food budget, and somehow found time to revive her mother’s practice of keeping a soup kettle and coffee pot simmering for anyone who needed a spot of warmth. And when every bedroom was eventually filled with men and women in hiding, Betsie set to work planning small concerts, literary readings, and foreign language lessons in the evenings to give their cloistered minds and hearts room to breathe.
Alone in my car, I became aware that perhaps The Hiding Place wasn’t presenting a simple contrast between life before and life after the events of WWII. Perhaps there was far more of a connection between Betsie’s home life and her unwavering displays of hard-pressed faith than I had ever dreamed.
On February 28, 1944, Betsie, Corrie, and four other family members were arrested by Gestapo agents. In prison, Corrie was placed in solitary confinement, but at one point she was given the chance to walk past the door of Betsie’s cell.
[U]nbelievably, against all logic, this cell was charming. My eyes seized only a few details as I inched reluctantly past. The straw pallets were rolled instead of piled in a heap, standing like little pillars along the walls, each with a lady’s hat atop it. A headscarf had somehow been hung along the wall. . . . Even the coats hanging on their hooks were part of the welcome of that room, each sleeve draped over the shoulder of the coat next to it like a row of dancing children . . . It had been a glimpse only, two seconds at the most, but I walked through the corridors of Scheveningen with Betsie’s singing spirit at my side.
This image still brings tears to my eyes — this gentle defiance that dared to celebrate life where there should only be despair. It defies human reason. More astounding still, Betsie wasn’t shaking an angry fist in the face of tyranny with these small acts; the home she made in her cell was simply the spilling over of a Christ-facing faith.
I believe that Betsie’s home years, and her intentional cultivation of beauty within them, prepared her for her time in the Dutch prison and the concentration camps. She knew her Father was in those sites of desolation because she had seen Him all along. For her, His goodness wasn’t constrained to Old Testament rescues and New Testament miracles. If she knew there were no “if’s” in His kingdom, it was because she had learned to see the involvement of His hand and the nourishing creativity of His character all around her. In window box seedlings and holiday flowers. In the worth of every body and soul.
Betsie caught sight of the eternal reality to which she was bound, and not even the myriad demonstrations of mankind’s depravity in WWII could cloud that view. Instead, she made room for others to see what she saw, making beauty and compassion flourish out of meager supplies. She showed me that beauty is as much a part of Christ’s love as sacrifice — for, indeed, it was for the beauty of His bride that He gave His life; it was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross.
The Hiding Place doesn’t get much airtime any more in my car, now that my children are old enough to make requests, but I return to it often in my mind. I love Betsie’s story, especially these days, because I wonder if it’s easier to write about beauty when I don’t have a current crisis in my life. Sometimes I wonder if the things I glimpsed in my valley-of-the-shadow were real, or if they will fall like paper swords from my hands when I come into the thick of battle again. Is it right to fight so long and hard for beauty while in the service of Christ? Are our efforts to relay that beauty no more than flickers in the dark?
But Betsie ten Boom reminds me that the hope to which I’ve raised my face — the glory of Christ, and the Church’s union with Him into it — is true indeed. I think she showed us, right to the very end, that if we can train our eyes upon the daily beauty through which God’s presence and being meet us, then we will see Him better in the hardship, the discipline, and the working out of every good deed He has prepared for us to do — wherever they may take place. We can fix our eyes on Christ and see the gold of the world-to-come breaking through, even in the ashes and the kitchen chores and the baby spit-up and the hospice wards and the prison barracks of this world.
Beauty helps us follow the thread of yearning that whispers through our living moments and tugs us forward with a mighty force. Her Christ-ward call can give us strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other on the uphill road, and to take as many with us as we can.
One day we will see the beauty of the King, free of our mortal cataracts of sin and grief and depression and anxiety and fear and sorrow. We’ll come home to the One who now sits at the right hand of the throne of God — the One who is Israel’s splendour and glory, and in whose presence in majesty and joy beyond all our deepest longings.
And we will know Him because we have loved Him, through fire and through faith.
The beauty has only just begun.