A courageous watchmaker’s daughter used her charisma, strength, and strong ethics to help save hundreds of lives during World War II.

The woman stood at the door, the hand holding her suitcase shaking so badly that the movement could even be seen in the dark. Her eyes were wide and her face very pale.

The light from the watchmaker’s shop shone on the yellow star sewn to the visitor’s coat. She was a Jew in Nazi-occupied Holland. She and anyone who aided her faced a death sentence.

Corrie ten Boom swung the door open wide and welcomed the woman inside.

Such a response was second nature to ten Boom. She was the daughter of a family of watchmakers whose faith formed the very core of their being. She and her family believed that all people are equal before God and thus deserve the same love, care, and charity. The ten Booms lived that principle each and every day.

During her childhood, her father, Casper, and mother, Cornelia, modeled the family’s faith. They offered a room to any child in need of shelter, made care baskets for neighbors who were down on their luck, visited the sick with food and money, and literally offered others the clothes off their backs.

It wasn’t that the ten Booms had money to burn—far from it. Casper would spend hours working on watches, and was so fascinated with their workings that he sometimes forgot to charge his customers. He taught ten Boom the intricate workings of the watch trade, and she became the first Dutch female licensed as a watchmaker. She learned how each gear relied on the next to keep the mechanism working—much like people had to rely upon one another to keep the world running smoothly.

The mechanism by which the ten Booms lived began to break down when Hitler invaded Holland in 1940. Soon, the Nazi policy of “racial purity” was being acted out on the streets. Anti-Semitic slogans were painted on Jewish-owned businesses; synagogues were broken into and defiled; Jewish people were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing. The people wearing those stars began disappearing, never to be seen again.

Many Dutch citizens decided to let such outrages roll over them like Nazi tanks, perhaps accustomed to the nationalist, right-wing politics of the Dutch Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB), which captured the country in 1931. “It’s none of our business,” they muttered. Others became sympathizers and proudly offered the Nazi salute to the German officers who could be found in every café following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940.  

Still, others joined the resistance to fight against the evil spreading like a stain over their country. Ten Boom was one of those people.

The ten Booms home turned out to be a perfect place for talking treason. With the shop in the front and a steep, narrow home connected onto the back, and living quarters upstairs, the house was a hodge podge of rooms better suited to a rabbit warren that to house people—unless those people needed to stay out of sight.

Corrie ten Boom and her family had collected money for the cause, and hid resistance fighters who were passing from one safe house to another. But their most dangerous activity began the night that ten Boom answered the door to find the woman with the suitcase asking for help.

She was a Jew whose husband had been taken away and whose son had gone into hiding. She was afraid that occupying soldiers would come back for her.

Ten Boom let the woman inside and promised to shelter her. She did the same with the next person who knocked, and the next, and the next. The ten Booms continued to shelter Dutch resistance fighters, but their house could only house so many and the cupboards were nearly bare.

The ten Booms prayed for assistance. It came in two unexpected ways.

Ten Boom went to he home of a friend named Fred Koornstra who worked in the Food Office, which was in charge of ration books, and asked if he could help her family with extra rations. Instead of saying a sensible number that would not arouse suspicion like five or 10, the visionary blurted out, “one hundred.” According to her autobiography, The Hiding Place, Koornstra staged a fake robbery that would account for the missing ration books ten Boom needed.

Koornstra also gave ten Boom access to a “continuing coupon,” which was presented on the last day of the month in exchange for the following’s month’s ration cards. With a continuing coupon, ten Boom could continue to receive 100 cards each month—it would be enough to feed all the people currently hiding in her house and those who would come after. The same official even secured 100 passports.

The second surprise blessing came when the resistance sent an architect, known only as Mr. Smit, to design a secret room. The space would be able to hide six adults if they all stood still. Hidden behind a wall, the room could be reached within 60 seconds if the occupants moved quickly.

The room’s construction would come just in time.

On February 28, 1944, the ten Boom family was betrayed and the Sicherheitsdienst (the Nazi Security Service) barged in, fanning out to search the house. Previously, a man had come to the watchmaker’s shop asking ten Boom for money to aid his wife, who he claimed had been arrested for hiding Jewish refugees. He asked ten Boom for 600 “guilders” to bribe a police officer in the nearby town of Ermelo, and ten Boom said she’d get the money and the man left. The man turned out to be a Nazi collaborator and turned ten Boom into the authorities. Thanks to a secret buzzer alerting them, the six adults hiding at the ten Boom’s at the time raced to the hidden room. 

The Germans did not find the people hiding upstairs, but they did find the extra ration books. The soldiers arrested ten Boom, her sister Betsie, and her father on the spot. More than 30 people were arrested in the raid, including Willem and Nollie ten Boom, ten Boom’s nephew Peter, and several others.

The ten Booms were eventually sent to different concentration camps and, 10 days after their arrest, Casper died of mistreatment. While Nollie and Willem were  released, ten Boom and Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp— Germany’s most notorious women’s prison—where they were paraded naked before the sadistic guards. Starved and beaten, Betsie died several months later.

Ten Boom was thrown into solitary confinement in March 1944. Although she was completely alone now, ten Boom clung to her faith like a raft in a storm.

Her faith was rewarded. She received a message saying, “All the watches in your closet are safe,” meaning all the people who had been in her hidden room had made it out. She would learn later they had stood unmoving for 47 hours before being rescued by the Dutch underground resistance movement. 

Twelve days after her sister died, ten Boom’s name was placed on a list to be released due to a clerical error. While all her fellow prisoners of her age group went to the gas chamber the following week, ten Boom was free.

After the war, ten Boom returned to Holland to recover and to pray about what to do next. How was she best to serve others now that the biggest threat was over? The activist needed a new purpose; before long, ten Boom had her answer.

It occurred to her that forgiveness was the greatest gift she had to give.

“God gave us love to enable us to pardon our enemies,” she said. And she did just that.

She embarked on a speaking tour throughout Europe, sharing what had happened to her and her family. She preached that forgiveness was the only answer to the cruelty she had witnessed. She told anyone who would listen, “There is no pain so deep that God’s love cannot reach it.”

In 1947, ten Boom met the Ravensbrück guard who made Betsie and ten Boom parade naked in front of him. The man offered his hand to ten Boom, begging her forgiveness. She took his hand and told him he had her forgiveness and she meant it.

Ten Boom founded a convalescent home for other survivors (including collaborators) and wrote many books, the most famous of which, The Hiding Place, was a bestseller and was adapted into a feature film that showcased her transformational leadership during World War II. Her home became a museum dedicated to educating the public about wartime Dutch Resistance. To this day, a working watchmaker’s shop is open on the first floor.

In 1968, ten Boom planted a tree at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in  Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, in remembrance of those who died. Israel also named Corrie ten Boom as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem. She and her resistance colleagues are estimated to have saved 800 lives.

Corrie ten Boom, now considered one of the most important women in WWII history, died on April 15, 1983 on the same day she had come into the world 91 years before. That was an honor, according to Jewish law, reserved only for those people most blessed by God.