Scrapbookpages Blog

April 3, 2010

Corrie ten Boom forgave a Ravensbrück SS guard

This morning I heard Kenneth B. McMillan, Presiding Bishop in the Mormon church, give a sermon on TV.  He told the story about a former SS guard at the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, who asked Corrie ten Boom to forgive him for his crime of being a camp guard.  She hesitated, but then held out her hand and forgave him.

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom is second only to Anne Frank as a famous female person in the story of the Holocaust.  In 1971, Corrie wrote a book entitled The Hiding Place, which was made into a film by World Wide Pictures in 1975.

There is a Museum in the Dutch city of Haarlem, which is all about Corrie ten Boom’s work with the Dutch Resistance and her work in hiding Jews from the Nazis.

The Corrie ten Boom Museum in Haarlem, Holland. Photo credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology

After World War II, Corrie ten Boom taught the Christian gospel all over the world, in 60 countries; her emphasis was on forgiveness. In 1974, Corrie wrote  Tramp for the Lord, in which she told about teaching the gospel in Germany in 1947.  She wrote that when she was approached by one of the cruelest former Ravensbrück camp guards, she was at first reluctant to forgive him.

In her book, Tramp for the Lord, Corrie ten Boom wrote:

“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.”

Corrie ten Boom had been arrested, along with her entire family,  by the German Gestapo on February 28, 1944 after a Dutch informant turned them in.  According to Wikipedia, they were sent first to Scheveningen prison, where her father died ten days after his capture. Corrie’s sister Nollie, brother Willem, and nephew Peter were all released.

Later, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were sent to the Vught  political concentration camp in the Netherlands, and finally to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in Germany on December 16, 1944, where Corrie’s sister Betsie died.  Corrie was released on December 31, 1944.

In the movie The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom narrates the section on her release from the Ravensbrück concentration camp, saying that she later learned that her release had been a clerical error. The women prisoners, who were her age, were killed the week following her release, which would have been in January 1945.

Women prisoners at work in Ravensbrück camp

Ravensbrück was not a death camp, but it did have a gas chamber, according to a confession given by Johann Schwarzhuber, the SS man who was the second in command at Ravensbrück.

Schwarzhuber gave detailed testimony in the British Military Court at Hamburg, where 16 staff members of Ravensbrück were put on trial from December 5, 1946 to February 3, 1947. Schwarzhuber testified that British SOE agents Violette Szabo, Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch had been executed by a shot in the neck shortly after Schwarzhuber was transferred to the camp on January 12, 1945. This would have been around the time that women the age of Corrie ten Boom were killed, according to her story.

Until British SOE officer Vera Atkins interrogated Schwarzhuber on March 13, 1946 and got him to confess to witnessing the murder of the women SOE agents, nothing was known about the fate of these three women who had been at Ravensbrück since August 22, 1944. Schwarzhuber filled in all the details that Atkins wanted to hear, about how the women had died bravely and how the SS men had been impressed with their bearing.

Schwarzhuber, who was on trial himself because he was an SS man at Ravensbrück, said in the deposition taken from him by Vera Atkins and repeated in the courtroom, that Ravensbrück Commandant Fritz Suhren had been annoyed that the Gestapo had not carried out these executions themselves.

Suhren was not on trial since he had escaped from custody. Schwarzhuber testified that Suhren had ordered him to organize a mass gassing of the women prisoners at the end of February 1945, at a time when sixty to seventy prisoners were dying each day during a typhus epidemic. Cecily Lefort was one of the women who died in the gas chamber on May 1, 1945, according to the testimony of Sylvia Salvensen, a former prisoner in the camp.

Schwarzhuber was the most important witness at the Ravensbrück proceedings; he had first told his story when he gave a deposition after being interrogated by Vera Atkins of the British SOE.  Vera Atkins was somehow able to get Schwarzhuber to confess to crimes for which he knew that he would surely be executed. After he was convicted, Schwarzhuber was executed on May 3, 1947.

I don’t know the name of the SS man who asked for forgiveness from Corrie ten Boom.  It could have been Schwarzhuber, but probably not.

In the same passage of her book, in which she wrote about forgiving the SS guard, Corrie wrote that, in her post-war experience with other victims of Nazi brutality, it was those who were able to forgive who were best able to rebuild their lives.

The State of Israel has named Corrie ten Boom as a person who is Righteous Among the Nations. She was also knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands in recognition of her work with the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Because of her aid to the Dutch Resistance, Corrie ten Boom was technically an illegal combatant under the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929 and her imprisonment in a concentration camp was legal.

The photo below shows a famous monument at the Ravensbrück Memorial Site.

Burdened Woman by Will Lammert. Bronze sculpture looks out over Lake Schwedt. 1959. Photo credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology

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