Fleas were a constant pest in the barracks at Ravensbruck, the women’s concentration camp some 56 miles north of Berlin where Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were imprisoned in 1944. As described in The Hiding Place, Betsie had already reminded Corrie that they were to give thanks in all things. Including flea infestations in a camp whose hallmarks were deprivation, brutality, and death.
Betsie’s health had always been problematic, and the conditions of prison confinement and being forced to be part of work gangs worsened her health problems. Even as she became sicker, her peace and spirit seemed to radiate hope and encouragement to Corrie and the other prisoners.
It is during one camp hospital stay that Betsie learns the reason for one of Ravensbruck’s few blessings – the guards stayed out of their large women’s barracks. Because the guards would not come in, Betsie and Corrie had been unimpeded in sharing the gospel and even conducting not one but two worship services.
The reason was the fleas, Betsie learned. The guards would not come into the barracks because they were afraid of picking up fleas.
And Corrie thinks of Betsie’s admonition to give thanks in all things, including fleas.
We often experience difficult, even terrible situations, without knowing why, without any rhyme or reason. It seems that life – or God – is simply toying with us to see how much we can stand. For Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, having to deal with fleas along with all the other horrors of a Nazi prison camp might seem over the top. Fleas, in addition to brutality and beatings, the smell of awful latrines, the hopelessness hanging over the entire site? Fleas, too, Lord?
In this case, there was a purpose. The fleas effectively kept the Nazi prison guards out, and allowed the gospel and worship to spread.
In a place as terrible as Ravensbruck, those fleas were the conduit for hope.
And Corrie will need hope. Betsie’s health worsens. She’s eventually taken back to the hospital. And the day comes when Corrie slips into the hospital through the bathroom and sees her sister’s body stacked against the wall.
She touches Betsie’s face for the last time.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Hiding Place. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Blue Sweater,” please visit Sarah at Reading Between the Lines.
Photograph: A view of the barracks of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The reality of the camp was not what this photograph might suggest.