“Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our patriarch and forefather. Antisemitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in antisemitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.” — Pope Pius XI
Corrie ten Boom and her family were not Catholics — like my family of origin for the last 400 years, they were good Dutch Calvinists — but their lives were as eloquent and ringing an expression of the truth attested by Pius as one could hope to find in Christians of any stripe.
“The God of Abraham and Isaac — and my God too” is how patriarch Caspar ten Boom (Arthur O’Connell) puts it, and he means it. So complete is his identification with children of Abraham that when the Nazis begin forcing the Dutch Jews to line up for yellow stars, ten Boom queues up for his own star. “If we all wore them, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Jew and the Gentile,” he contends.
Alas, any hopes ten Boom might have for such dramatic Dutch solidarity with the Jews of Holland are doomed to disappointment. Even the pragmatic pastor (Nigel Hawthorne) rebukes ten Boom for making a spectacle of himself with his yellow star, and is scandalized when ten Boom’s spinster daughters Corrie (Jeannette Clift in a BAFTA and Golden Globe–nominated performance) and Betsie (Julie Harris) take in a Jewish baby to hide from the Nazis. Ten Boom finally agrees to a compromise: He will take off his star, but keep the baby.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Corrie ten Boom, James F. Collier’s The Hiding Place sticks closely to the deeply inspiring true story of the ten Boom family’s work with the Dutch underground hiding Jewish refugees from the Nazis in their Amsterdam home, and their eventual imprisonment and transferral to the Ravensbrück camp, where nearly all of them died. Thirty years after its original release, The Hiding Place remains one of the best films ever produced by a faith-based group (Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures).
The script by Allan Sloane (Martin Luther) and Lawrence Holben avoids the glibness and moralizing that hamper so many religious productions. The Hiding Place is a story of faith, but it is a human story, not a homily.
There is no group stereotyping; not all Nazis or Germans are bad, not all Christians or Dutch Gentiles are heroic, and most but not all of the ten Booms’ Jewish refugees are sympathetic. The depth and rigor of the ten Booms’ faith is profoundly moving and challenging, though while they may be, in the gospel idiom, as innocent as doves, they aren’t necessarily as shrewd as serpents. The ten Booms seem almost too above-board and open to be truly crafty, and their otherworldliness at times seems to border on naiveté. It feels inevitable that they will be caught sooner or later, and of course eventually they are.
For the ten Booms, sheltering Jews from the Nazi storm is no act of political resistance or activism, but a gospel mandate: To shut their doors to anyone in need would be to shut them to Jesus Christ. There is no condescension, no self-congratulation; they see themselves as servants, not benefactors. When ten Boom invites a Jewish professor to say the grace before the meal, it isn’t a magnanimous gesture, but a sincere expression of religious respect.
It isn’t always easy. One of their guests is the imperious, prickly Mr. Weinstock, a teacher who refuses to take his share of the household work and treats the ten Booms as staff rather than hosts, let alone hosts who are risking their lives to host him. Eventually, in an unexpectedly revealing conversation with Corrie, it becomes clear that Weinstock’s arrogant attitude is a defense mechanism — that to adopt the posture of a suppliant would be to acknowledge the desperation of his circumstances and to lose the shred of pride that is his last defense. The film understands this, but it doesn’t excuse him, or his parting shot to Corrie: “You still won’t get me to wash dishes!”
The film offers fascinating insights into the methods employed by the ten Booms and their allies in the Dutch underground. A large grandfather clock is brought into ten Boom’s watchmaker shop. Does it hide a Jewish refugee? No, there is something else inside. An underground house inspector examines the house, explaining how Nazi searches work, where the safest rooms will be, and how to thwart Nazi tricks like feeling spare beds for the warmth of a recently departed body.
As familiar as the images and sounds of the concentration camp have become, the second half of The Hiding Place finds a unique dramatic center as Corrie and Betsie struggle, not only to survive or to hold fast their faith, but to hold fast their charity as well, to reject all hatred, even of Nazis. In one wrenching scene, Corrie watches in horror as the sadistic camp matron (Carol Gillies) savagely beats her sister Betsie; but as soon as Betsie can speak, her first words to her sister are: “No hate.”
For all that Corrie and Betsie suffer at the camp, perhaps the starkest trial is simply the question: Where is God? There are little hints of grace and providence even in their trials; Corrie knows her faith tells her to be thankful in all circumstances, yet she cannot bring herself to be thankful for lice — until circumstances reveal that even lice can be a blessing. Yet why does God allow the camp at all? What is the point of such suffering? When a fellow prisoner challenges the sisters on this point, they struggle with words, sure only that “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”It is perhaps here, in Corrie and Betsie’s efforts to grapple with the mystery of suffering, that Catholic viewers may be most aware of the gap between the ten Booms’ earnest Reformed milieu and Catholic tradition, with its spirituality of suffering. Even the peasant piety of a Bernadette Soubirous or a Lucía Santos teaches one to hope that one’s sufferings, offered to God as a sacrifice in union with the sufferings of Christ, may accomplish much good for other souls — more good, indeed, than one might accomplish by corporal works of mercy alone.
This understanding of suffering would have been foreign to the ten Booms’ spirituality (indeed, based on their understanding, they probably would have rejected it). Yet in a way the very absence of this understanding makes the ten Booms’ submission to God’s will even more starkly heroic, perhaps even (as uncomfortable as they would have been with the concept) more meritorious.
Though the film is largely shot indoors, director Collier and cinematographer Michael Reed (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) make the most of location shooting in Holland, giving the film a bleak, gritty sense of time and place. In huddled conversations in the camp, the film heightens the sense of abandonment by framing the actors’ pale faces in a sea of darkness. Among stand-out scenes, a wordless pantomime exchange between Corrie and Betsie through a dirty infirmary window is one of the film’s best moments.
An epilogue featuring the real Corrie ten Boom, who died in 1983, brings home the reality of the story, and reveals how lucky it is, or rather providential, that we have her story at all. We are grateful for the example of WWII saints and martyrs who went to heroes’ deaths for the sake of conscience or charity, like Maximilian Kolbe and Sophie Scholl and her fellow White Rose members. Knowing the story of The Hiding Place, and of Corrie’s subsequent service to God, inspires gratitude for the example of one who survived.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.