Haarlem, The Netherlands, September, 1939. A family of aging sisters, and an elderly father and aunt, listen to the assurances of the Dutch government on the radio that the country is neutral, it will not be invaded by Nazi Germany and there will be no war. A few hours later, Holland is at war. Five days after that, the queen flees to Britain and the government surrenders. And everything changes.
German military uniforms are everywhere. Curfews are announced. Radios have to be surrendered.
We’ve reached the point in our book discussion of The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom where the introductory chapters are over, and the story turns to one of the darkest times in Dutch and European history. It is difficult time to be Dutch, and occupied by Nazis. It’s an impossible time to be Jewish. The Jews of Haarlem gradually begin to disappear, starting with the rabbi and other religious leaders. (In a separate story, in Amsterdam, the Frank family, including their daughter Anne, goes into hiding, and will evade the Nazis for three years.)
Corrie ten Boom finds a wide array of responses to the occupation. Some people will fight it and join the resistance. Some will embrace the new conquerors and become much like them. Most will try to muddle through and focus on surviving. And some will be consumed, never to be seen again.
The last time any part of the United States was occupied at least partially by a conquering army was the Civil War. Before that, it had happened during the American Revolution. (During the War of 1812, there were battles and forays like the burning of Washington, but no sustained occupation.) Those occupations, while disruptive and often terrible, cannot compare with what happened in Europe with the Nazis. And yet people’s responses were similar – some resist and fight, some collaborate, most try to survive.
Corrie faced a choice in how she would respond. She could have ducked and likely been left largely alone. But Corrie and her family were strong Christians, and they’re horrified by what’s happening. Persecution of a Jewish neighbor leads her to help him escape, and Corrie ten Boom discovers the underground. And more than that, she will become part of the underground. She will offer herself to God to help the Jewish people.
You read a story like this one and can’t help but ask, what would you do in her situation? You’d like to think you would be courageous – we all like to think of ourselves as noble heroes – but the fact is that you don’t know. And you won’t know until you face the kind of choice and the decision Corrie faced.
She chose the path of courage and danger. She could have kept her head down and ridden out the war relatively unbothered, ignoring what was happening to neighbors and friends, ignoring the men, women and children wearing the yellow star, herded into trucks and taken away.
And she knew there could be a heavy price to pay.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Hiding Place. To see more posts on this chapter, “Invasion,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.
Photograph: German troops rounding up Dutch Jews for deportation to the camps in Poland.