How the Atmosphere Among a Group of Women in a Prison Camp was Transformed

Corrie Ten Boom, her sister Betsie, and other family members were Christians, imprisoned by the Nazis for hiding Jews in their home in Holland. Their story is told in a book called The Hiding Place. Their relationship with God proved to be a great benefit to themselves and to other women imprisoned with them.

Excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

"Barracks 8 was in the quarantine compound. Next to us--perhaps as a deliberate warning to newcomers--were located the punishment barracks. From there, all day long and often into the night, came the sounds of hell itself. They were not the sounds of anger, or of any human emotion, but of a cruelty altogether detached: blows landing in regular rhythm, screams keeping pace. We would stand in our ten-deep ranks with our hands trembling at our sides, longing to jam them against our ears, to make the sounds stop.

"It grew harder and harder. Even within these four walls there was too much misery, too much seemingly pointless suffering. Every day something else failed to make sense, something else grew too heavy.

"But as the rest of the world grew stranger, one thing became increasingly clear. And that was the reason the two of us were here. Why others should suffer we were not shown. As for us, from morning until lights-out, whenever we were not in ranks for roll call, our Bible was the center of an ever-widening circle of health and hope.

"Like waifs clustered around a blazing fire, we gathered about it, holding out our hearts to its warmth and light. The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the Word of God.

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us."

"I would look about us as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face. More than conquerors...It was not a wish. It was a fact.

"We knew it, we experienced it minute by minute--poor, hated, hungry. We are more than conquerors. Not "we shall be." We are!

"Life in Ravensbruck took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One, the observable, external life, grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.

"Sometimes I would slip the Bible from its little (sack) with hands that shook, so mysterious had it become to me. It was new; it had just been written. I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry...I had read a thousand times the story of Jesus' arrest--how soldiers had slapped Him, laughed at Him, flogged Him. Now such happenings had faces and voices.

"Fridays--the recurrent humiliation of medical inspection. The hospital corridor in which we waited was unheated and a fall chill had settled into the walls. Still we were forbidden even to wrap ourselves in our own arms, but had to maintain our erect, hands-at-sides position as we filed slowly past a phalanx of grinning guards.

"How there could have been any pleasure in the sight of these stick-thin legs and hunger-bloated stomachs I could not imagine. Surely there is no more wretched sight than the human body unloved and uncared for.

"Nor could I see the necessity for the complete undressing: when we finally reached the examining room a doctor looked down each throat, another--a dentist presumably--at our teeth, a third in between each finger. And that was all. We trooped again down the long, cold corridor and picked up our X-marked dresses at the door.

"But it was one of these mornings while we were waiting, shivering in the corridor, that yet another page in the Bible leapt into life for me.

"He hung naked on the cross.

"...The paintings, the carved crucifixes showed at least a scrap of cloth. But this, I suddenly knew, was the respect and reverence of the artist. But oh--at the time itself, on that other Friday morning--there had been no reverence. No more than I saw in the faces around us now.

"'Betsie, they took His clothes too.'

"'Ahead of me I heard a little gasp. 'Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked Him...'

"Every day the sun rose a little later, the bite took longer to leave the air. It will be better, everyone assured everyone else, when we move into permanent barracks. We'll have a blanket apiece. A bed of our own. Each of us painted into the picture her own greatest need.

"The move to permanent quarters came the second week in October. We were marched, ten abreast, along the wide cinder avenue...Several times the column halted while numbers were read out--names were never used at Ravensbruck. At last Betsie's and mine were called...We stepped out of line with a dozen or so others and stared at the long gray front of Barracks 28.

"Betsie and I followed a prisoner-guide through the door at the right. Because of the broken windows, the vast room was in semi-twilight. Our noses told us, first, that the place was filthy: somewhere, plumbing had backed up, the bedding was soiled and rancid.

"Then as our eyes adjusted to the gloom we saw that there were no individual beds at all, but great square tiers stacked three high, and wedged side by side and end to end with only an occasional narrow aisle slicing through.

"We followed our guide single file--the aisle was not wide enough for two--fighting back the claustrophobia of these platforms rising everywhere above us...At last she pointed to a second tier in the center of a large block.

"To reach it, we had to stand on the bottom level, haul ourselves up, and then crawl across three other straw-covered platforms to reach the one that we would share with--how many?

"The deck above us was too close to let us sit up. We lay back, struggling against the nausea that swept over us from the reeking straw...Suddenly I sat up, striking my head on the cross-slats above. Something had pinched my leg.

"'Fleas!' I cried. 'Betsie, the place is swarming with them!'

"We scrambled across the intervening platforms, heads low to avoid another bump, dropped down to the aisle and hedged our way to a patch of light.

"'Here! And here another one!' I wailed. 'Betsie, how can we live in such a place!'

"'Show us. Show us how.' It was said so matter of factly it took me a second to realize she was praying. More and more the distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsie.

"'Corrie!' she said excitedly. 'He's given us the answer! Before we asked, as He always does! In the Bible this morning. Where was it? Read that part again!'

"I glanced down the long dim aisle to make sure no guard was in sight, then drew the Bible from its pouch. 'It was in First Thessalonians,' I said. We were on our third complete reading of the New Testament since leaving Scheveningen.

"In the feeble light I turned the pages. 'Here it is: "Comfort the frightened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all...'" It seemed written expressly to Ravensbruck.

"'Go on,' said Betsie. 'That wasn't all.'

"'Oh yes:'..."Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.'"

"'That's it, Corrie! That's His answer. "Give thanks in all circumstances!" That's what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!' I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room.

"'Such as?' I said.

"'Such as being assigned here together.'

"I bit my lip. 'Oh yes, Lord Jesus!'

"'Such as what you're holding in your hands.' I looked down at the Bible.

"'Yes! Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all these women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.'

"'Yes,' said Betsie, 'Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we're packed so close, that many more will hear!' She looked at me expectantly. 'Corrie!' she prodded.

"'Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed suffocating crowds.'

"'Thank You,' Betsie went on serenely, 'for the fleas and for--'

"The fleas! This was too much. 'Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.'

"'Give thanks in all circumstances,' she quoted. It doesn't say, 'in pleasant circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.

"And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong."

"They started arriving soon after 6:00 o'clock, the women of Barracks 28, tired, sweat-stained, and dirty from the long forced-labor details. The building, we learned from one of our platform mates, had been designed to hold four hundred. There were now fourteen hundred quartered here with more arriving weekly as concentration camps in Poland, France, Belgium, Austria, as well as Holland were evacuated toward the center of Germany.

"There were nine of us sharing our particular square, designed for four, and some grumbling as the others discovered they would have to make room for Betsie and me. Eight acrid and overflowing toilets served the entire room; to reach them we had to crawl not only over our own bedmates but over those on the other platforms between us and the closest aisle, always at the risk of adding too much weight to the already sagging slats and crashing down on the people beneath.

"Even when the slats held, the least movement on the upper platforms sent a shower of dust and straw over the sleepers below--followed by a volley of curses. In Barracks 8 most of us had been Dutch. Here there was not even a common language and among exhausted, ill-fed people quarrels erupted constantly.

"There was one raging now as the women sleeping nearest the windows slammed them shut against the cold. At once scores of voices demanded that they be raised again. Brawls were starting all up and down that side of the room; we heard scuffling, slaps, sobs.

"In the dark, I felt Betsie's hand clasp mine. 'Lord Jesus,' she said aloud, 'send Your peace into this room. There has been too little praying here. The very walls know it. But where You come, Lord, the spirit of strife cannot exist...'

"The change was gradual, but distinct. One by one the angry sounds let up.

"'I'll make you a deal!' The voice spoke German with a strong Scandinavian accent. 'You can sleep in here where its warmer and I'll take your place by the window!'

"'And add your lice to my own!' But there was a chuckle in the answer. 'No thanks.'

"'I'll tell you what!' The third voice had a French burr. 'We'll open them halfway. That way we'll be only half-frozen and you'll be only half-smothered.'

"A ripple of laughter widened around the room at this. I lay back on the sour straw and knew there was one more circumstance for which I could give thanks. Betsie had come to Barracks 28.

"Roll call came at 4:40 a.m. here as it had in quarantine. A whistle roused us at 4:00 when, without even shaking the straw from clothes and hair, the stampede began for the ration of bread and coffee in the center room. Lastcomers found none.

"After roll call, work crews were called out. For weeks Betsie and I were assigned to the Siemens factory. This huge complex of mills and railroad terminals was a mile and a half from the camp. The "Siemens Brigade," several thousand of us, marched out the iron gate beneath the charged wires into a world of trees and grass and horizons. The sun rose as we skirted the little lake; the gold of the late fall fields lifted our hearts.

"The work at Siemens, however, was sheer misery. Betsie and I had to push a heavy handcart to a railroad siding where we unloaded large metal plates from a boxcar and wheeled them to a receiving gate at the factory. The grueling workday lasted eleven hours. At least, at noontime we were given a boiled potato and some thin soup; those who worked inside the camp had no midday meal.

"Returning to camp we could barely lift our swollen and aching legs. The soldiers patrolling us bellowed and cursed, but we could only shuffle forward inches at a step.

"Back at the barracks we formed yet another line--would there never be an end to columns and waits?--to receive our ladle of turnip soup in the center room. Then, as quickly as we could for the press of people, Betsie and I made our way to the rear of the dormitory room where we held our worship "service." Around our own platform area there was not enough light to read the Bible, but back here a small light bulb cast a wan yellow circle on the wall, and here an ever larger group of women gathered.

"They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28.

"At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. So many now wanted to join us that we held a second service after evening roll call. There on the Lagerstrasse we were under rigid surveillance, guards in their warm wool capes marching constantly up and down. It was the same in the center room of the barracks: half a dozen guards or camp police always present. Yet in the large dormitory room there was almost no supervision at all. We did not understand it.

"One evening I got back to the barracks late from a wood-gathering foray outside the walls. A light snow lay on the ground and it was hard to find the sticks and twigs with which a small stove was kept going in each room. Betsie was waiting for me, as always, so that we could wait through the food line together. Her eyes were twinkling.

"'You're looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,' I told her.

"'You know, we've never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,' she said. 'Well--I've found out.'

"That afternoon, she said, there'd been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they'd asked the supervisor to come and settle it.

"But she wouldn't. She wouldn't step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?"

"Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: 'Because of the fleas! That's what she said, "That place is crawling with fleas!'"

"My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie's bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for."

During the services, the Bible was read in Dutch, but translations were passed on in German, French, Polish, Russian, Czech, etc.

After a while, the yelling, slapping, crying, and words of anger changed to "Sorry!", "Excuse me," and "No harm done."

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