A memorable ORU speaker’s true story of forgiveness, as a holocaust survivor
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. …
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin…”
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”1
Just three years before this dramatic confrontation with the guard, Corrie Ten Boom along with her family operated a watch shop located in the beautiful old city of Haarlem, Holland.
It was in the 1940‘s, when being Jewish was a death sentence in Hitler’s Europe. Corrie and her family were Dutch Christians who took several Jews into hiding. The Ten Booms built a secret room for those they sheltered. It was a false wall tucked into an old closet, built to save lives. And save lives it did, but not without great personal cost to the Ten Boom Family.
On February 28, 1944, a Dutch informant pointed Nazi authorities to search the Ten Boom’s home in search of the hidden Jews. Despite a destructive hunt and heavy handed interrogation, the Nazi’s could not find the hiding place.
Still, soldiers arrested the Ten Boom family. Ten days after being captured, Corrie’s father died in custody. Other family members were released but daughters, Corrie and Betsie, ended up being shipped to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. There, the prisoners were beaten with riding whips, forced to do hard labor, and given little to eat. Their horrendous conditions caused many, including Betsie, to become critically ill. But neither woman lost their faith. As she lay dying, Betsie told her sister Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” 2
Amazingly, just two weeks after Betsie’s death, Corrie was mistakenly released, the result of a clerical error. The next week the Nazi’s killed all the female prisoners Corrie’s age. Corrie went on to write, travel and speak about her experiences, and her teaching emphasized forgiveness.
Fast forward to just three years after her release. There she was, standing face to face with her former captor who was asking for her forgiveness.
Corrie reflected on that day, …”I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do…
But forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.” 1
Paul, the writer of the Bible’s book of Ephesians, was a man who also experienced imprisonment and unfair treatment, and yet he said, “And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ…”(3:18-19a NLT)
Corrie got a better glimpse of the love of Christ when she forgave that day. And in that moment, she experienced true freedom, the kind that surpassed being physically released out of the concentration camp. It was a freedom that unbound her heart from the tentacles of hatred.
When she spoke at Oral Roberts University’s chapel service in 1975, Corrie’s message was unforgettable according to the faculty, staff and alumni. The Mabee Center was filled with not only students, but also the Jewish community of Tulsa. “They wanted to honor her,” said Dr. George Gillen, professor of business at ORU. “Many of them were weeping. I’ll never forget that.”3
Many years have passed since the days of the Holocaust. But the freedom that Corrie found in forgiveness through faith in God is a timeless lesson. Even for a watchmaker’s daughter.
Visit Tulsa’s Holocaust Education Center, located in the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art. For more information, visit jewishmuseum.net