Sunday, March 7, 2010

Corrie and Cristabel

I've been looking over my last several posts, and noticed that I've been writing quite a bit lately about human compassion.  I've discussed the compassion I received from a sweet couple who helped me through the loss of my pet bird, and the complete absence of compassion from a meter man downtown.  Today, with your permission, I'd like to look at it again, this time combined with my other latest obsession:  history!  Tell me what you think of this...

My husband recently purchased a box set DVD version of the fantastic 1973 miniseries documentary, The World At War.  This take on World War II may not be as well-produced as the more recent Ken Burns version on the same subject, but it was made less than thirty years after the war's end.  Many of the subjects interviewed for the film are actual eyewitnesses, participants in what transpired during that time.  The memories of all they endured are fresh, they haven't yet aged enough to have forgotten precious details. I think all this makes this particular documentary a real treasure, indeed.

Alan has been viewing the DVDs in our basement each time he works out.  This morning I joined him there and watched today's installment as I ran on the treadmill.  Today's chapter was titled, "Inside the Third Reich:  Germany 1940-1944," and I knew before I hit mile two that I was going to write about it here today.

The film covered the usual Adolf Hitler rantings at the podium and the high stepping soldiers saluting their fuhrer as they marched by his grandstand.  Then the focus shifted towards the oppressing and eventual rounding-up of the Jewish community, relocating them to ghettos, then to the gas chambers of concentration camps.

They interviewed a German housewife, Hertha Beese, who described opening her door one evening and discovering a Jewish couple standing there, asking for her help.  She said from that moment forward she became part of this "invisible community" that helped so many Jews escape a horrible fate.

Then a woman appeared onscreen with a furrowed brow and troubled face.  As she spoke, she wrung her hands and clenched her fists.  Her name was Christabel Bielenberg, and here, in her exact words, is the tale she told:

"One day, a friend of ours who used to collect food cards for these Jews, came to me with another woman with dyed blonde hair.  I can see her sitting there now, twisting her wedding ring and telling me that it wouldn't be for long, that she would help me in the house, and her husband need never go out.  He would live in the cellar or wherever."

Not knowing what to do, Cristabel consulted her neighbor and trusted friend, Carl, who told her the risk to herself and her family was far too great, and to forget the whole idea of helping this Jewish couple.

"I was astonished, overcome really, at the response that I got from my neighbor who told me that under NO circumstances, WHATSOEVER, could I house these people, that housing of Jews meant concentration camps not only for myself, but for my husband, possibly also for my children.  I can remember going through and out into the road.  And out of the darkness came a voice saying, 'Have you decided?'  and I simply couldn't say no.  I just said, 'Well, I can't for longer than two days.'  And I let him into the cellar.  They stayed for two days, and after the second day, in the morning they were gone.  The cellar was empty, the bed I had set up, all tidily arranged, and they had gone.  I knew later that they were caught buying a ticket at the railway station and were transported to Auschwitz [concentration camp].  And why I say this is the most painful and terrible story for me to have to tell is because after they left, I realized that Hitler had turned me into a murderer."

Alan finished his work out, returned the TV to the local news, handed me the remote, and went back upstairs.  I kept pounding out my miles, watching the weather forecast.  But I just couldn't shake the image of Christabel's sad, regretful face from my mind.  I wondered what I would've done if I were in her shoes, back in 1940's Germany.  Would I have taken-in someone, anyone who came to me for help, even if it meant my own (and my family's) demise?  Oh, I hope so.  I pray that I would be so strong, but could I?

I'm sure everyone is familiar with the legendary Corrie Ten Boom, concentration camp survivor and author of her autobiography, The Hiding Place.  Corrie and her family helped several Jews escape from their Nazi occupied town of Haarlem, in the Netherlands.  They were eventually caught and sent to Ravensbruck camp in Germany, and all but Corrie perished there. Legend has it that Corrie's father, Kaspar, an elderly man, was approached by a German soldier as they were being arrested for harboring Jews.  Due to Kaspar's advanced years, the soldier offered to let him go, if he promised to cease with all Jew-aiding activity.  Mr. Ten Boom, sitting on the truck, told him he would open his home to any man who needed his help, including a Jewish one.  The soldier closed the door and instructed the driver to take him away.  Kaspar died in the camp ten days later.

For the remainder of her life, Corrie Ten Boom lived with a number tatooed on her forearm, along with the emotional scars of losing her entire family and enduring unspeakable horrors at that camp.  But the night she was arrested, every one of the Jews she was hiding behind the wall of her bedroom successfully escaped to freedom, as did many before them.  Cristabel Bielenberg lived with the burden of a decision she still regretted thirty years later.  Her furrowed brow and wringing hands gave away a tremendously troubled soul, indeed.

I hope none of us are ever forced to make this kind of unthinkable decision ourselves.  But if you did, how would you choose?  Could you live with your decision?

57 comments:

GregoryJ said...

Wonderful post, Joan. I've watched a lot of those shows on the history channel. My wife hates them, so I've probably missed some.
It is so courageous what some people did to help the Jews. I really don't know if I would be able take a chance like that..

I've heard the following and looked it up:
"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me"

Eva Gallant said...

One can't be sure what one would do until the situation presents itself. I would like to think that I would be willing to help, but who knows what would happen in the real circumstances and real dangers?

Sylvia K said...

A very moving post! While I was living in Germany in the late 1960s -- my husband was stationed there, and we went through one of the prison camps that had been turned into a museum. I could never, ever forget the horrors we saw recorded there, the pictures, the actual place where so many were put to death. It is a memory that entire town has had to deal with over the years. How can we know what we would do under the same circumstances? I like to think that I would fight back because I have been a fighter all my life against things that cause so much pain -- in all ways. But what would I do in that situation if it meant my own life or the lives of my family? I don't know! And I hope to God that I'm never put to the test. It's easy to say what you would do from the comfort and safety of one's life today, but reality can be a whole different thing.

Sylvia

Rachel Cotterill said...

What powerful and important stories. It's very hard to think about... of course I like to believe that I'd do the right thing, but unless we're tested, how can we know whether we're strong enough? Terrifying prospect. I sincerely hope the world never sees anything like this again.

Bossy Betty said...

I remember being inspired by Corri Tenboom's story when I first heard it. I would hope that I would have the courage to do the right thing.

Jen said...

Wonderful post and thankyou for sharing that documentary I think it's one we would like to watch here also. I have read and watched quite a lot about this war and years ago thought without a shadow of a doubt that if it was only my humanity that could be lost compared to families of children and elderly then I would help them out and harbour Jews against the regime. However now that I have my children to think of I am not so sure that I could be so brave. I would definitely be torn forever by the decision and as much as it pains me to say it I think I would need to put my childrens lives before all others and if helping others means risking their lives then I would have to turn them away. Pray to god that neither myself or anyone else is ever put in this situation again and needs to make decisions such as this.

Richard said...

I'd help the jews, but NOT THE IRISH! with the drinking and fighting, and the potatoes! They are a scouge upon the earth.

just kidding; you know I love the mickies! ya wee devils!

WhisperingWriter said...

My husband watches stuff like that. He loves anything that has to do with World War 2.

ReformingGeek said...

I'm glad you wrote about this subject. We need to be reminded about the horrors of this time in history so we don't repeat it.

I don't know what I would do but I do think we need to be more aware of challenges to our personal freedom!

Pink Haired Momma said...

I have some elder jewish family members that were in a camp and survived. This is never spoken about nor are we permitted to ask questions. I too hope we as a soiety NEVER have to experience this again. Great post!

***Amy*** said...

It's so incredibly moving, to think that it only happened such a short time ago and changed the world so dramatically.

I'd like to think that I'd be one of the people hiding others in my walls, but you can see where the sticky situation happens, because I"d also do anything to keep my son safe.

Jean said...

Such a wonderful and heartbreaking story. I am so addicted to watching anything about the horrific things that happened during WWII. I've heard this man, Stephen M. Ross, speak about the story of his freeing from Dachau and it never ceases to touch my heart.
Both Corrie and Cristabel were amazing women to make the choices they made no matter what the outcome.
Thanks for sharing this!

xo

Allison said...

It's hard question to answer if you were not in that situation. I hope I would do what I knew was right and help the people who needed me. We study this at school, and it's always interesting to learn with the children about the Nazi occupation.

Looking for Blue Sky said...

It's an almost impossible dilemma when you have your own kids to protect. I have stuck my neck out before and protested very publicly about things that I believe in, but not with any threat to my life or that of my kids. I'd like to think that I would help people in such a desperate situation and that if I couldn't hide them, then I'd find some other way to help them. Thanks for such as wonderful and inspiring post!

Ellie said...

So true. I think that's why we have to keep rehashing this for future generations - so they understand where humanity really lies.

Danielle said...

It's so easy to criticise other people's weaknesses, but I honestly couldn't say how I would react in such a situation ... especially if my family were at risk. I'd like to believe I would have the Ten Booms' faith and courage. I read The Hiding Place a couple of years ago ... inspiring stuff! Amazing family!

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

World War II has never been my favorite era to read about or study but, lately, I've been drawn to several novels, all of which I'm glad I read. I just ordered Corrie Ten Boom's book -- I remember seeing a movie made of it when I was a child. I don't know what it is about WWII which now causes my stomach to knot every time I think about what happened back then -- I always knew it was "terrible" and "awful" but it's as if now, there are millions of people speaking to my heart. Maybe I just wasn't ready to listen before.

Denise said...

I remember the series well and can even remember it's theme music in my head. My Dad was always watching WWII documentaries when I was young. I remember him crying at some and I would ask him why he was crying and he just shook his head. He was a WWII Veteran and didn't speak of his wartime experiences much, if at all. Those people who helped were amazingly brave. I hope I would never have turned away a person who needed shelter but will never truly know. The proprietor at our local pub was Dutch and she told us a story one day of how her father, an artist, forged identification papers for Jews, and was very proud to tell me that he had been recognized by Israel after the war. I am sure there were many more who were never recognized for what they did and that there are many silent hero's we will never know about.

magically ordinary said...

Wow. Just wow. What an amazing post.

Missy said...

This is a great post. Moving, thought provoking. Thank you for taking the time to write it and share.

Hey - did you finish House Rules yet? Good?

Freely Living Life said...

Hello there!

I found you through the "Friday Follow" and decided to follow you through Google Friend Connect. I'm looking forward to further exploring your blog! Come on over and visit us when you get a free moment. Happy blog hopping! <3

Debbie(single;complicated) said...

I can't imagine being placed in that situation. I wonder what I would do and hope with all my being that compassion would win out over self preservation. What horrible choices these people faced....

Rebecca D said...

My mother is Jewish... We didn't know this growing up, neither did she... She was adopted by a christian couple who couldn't have children of their own. She was raised christian, married a christian and raised us in a christian home...

When she was old enough to ask questions she was told she was from an orphanage... she believed that her whole life until about ten years ago she was contacted.

She was one of 6 Jewish infants smuggled into this country by a brave woman who worked as a travel agent... She would convince young families to bring these babies with them on their journey. She is one of many unsung heroes...

We have searched for any record of who her parents were, but there are none to be found... If they survived, to this day they have no idea that their child did. I can't imagine the anguish her mother had at giving her up, she was 7 months old at adoption... She must have been about three months old when she was smuggled out. We are told the only accurate information on her birth certificate is her birth date... not a lot to go on.

Would I risk everything to help someone in this situation? I have to... My mother wouldn't be here today, I wouldn't be here today, my children wouldn't be here today, if a series of total strangers hadn't taken this risk for my mother.

Erika said...

Great post, very well written. The political dynamic as seen from the eyes of the German people during those years is simply mind blowing for me. I have a small number of extended family that were, from what I gather, German refugees. No one really talks about it much the few facts that I do have came from me asking direct questions. Heart wrenching to realize there was no "easy way out" for anyone. It is so easy for so many people to demonize an entire nation of people without realizing how far in the dark many were kept and the difficult decisions so many had to make. The courage of those that took action is incredible. On a related note, the German people are currently seeking to honor those as who took action against the regime as well, check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_to_the_German_Resistance

Star Child said...

I feel quite emotional after reading your beautiful post.

I hope, as would most people, that I will never need to make a decision like that.

In recent times I have found myself in difficult situations, where my non-action would have been safer, both personally and professionally. But I simply had to act. I keep thinking about a poem I saw on YouTube called "Too Old Not To Be Bold", by a lady called Astari.

Essentially her message is, wrongs cannot be left unaddressed.

My situations that I refer to are not life or death situations. I would not pretend they are. But if they were, I would like to think I would still act. Life is so short and so precious. How can we not at least try to respect and protect life?

But if I never have to make a decision like Corrie Ten Boom's, I will be content.

Kellyansapansa said...

I too like to think that I would do the right thing and help a fellow human being. But I guess we never know how we will act in such a situation. It reminds me of Sophie's Choice. I cried for days after reading that book. I can't imagine the horror of having to make these types of decision and then live with the consequences. The worst part is that often there are dire consequences no matter which choice was made.

Mercy said...

I've always love Corrie Ten Boom's story. The things she went through and how she didn't give up are amazing, but I think the most amazing part is how she forgave the Natzi officer who came to her years later and begged forgiveness for the things he had done to her and her sister. That must have taken the kind or courage only God can give.

ilovepink1078 said...

Hi! how are you? hope all is well.Nice Post very interesting. hope to hear you soon.

http://www.uchsmapeh.blogspot.com/

lifeshighway said...

Powerful post today. I am sure most of us would be tested under similar terrifying conditions.

blueviolet said...

What she said about Hitler turning her into a murdererer....wow. I can see why you've been riveted to this. It turns it from textbook history to real people, real feelings.

Getting My Words Out said...

Again, you make me want to study history!! I think I'll have to go to the library today to get The Hiding Place. Thanks for the great post!

THE OLD GEEZER said...

I believe if a person is in the habit of making "right" little decisions on a daily basis, when the big one's come along hopefully we make the right one.

Melissa @ Cellulite Investigation said...

I hope I would have the insight and presence of mind to leave the country long before it got to that point. As much as I respect the heroes who rescued others, the idea of sacrificing my own family members would also leave me guilt stricken. For me, the best option would be to get my loved ones out of the country and be an activist from abroad.

Writing Without Periods! said...

I hope I would have the guts to speak out. It's that crowd mentality...maybe someone else will say something, no? Very scary. Your post is very insightful.
Mary

Taylor-Made Wife said...

That sounds like such a great documentary! I wish so bad that I would have had the guts to do the right thing. It makes my heart hurt when I think about how horrible people can be to other people.

Alyssa said...

This post is riveting. I am so glad I've become a follower...I would be saddened to have missed it. I probably have too much to say as a comment; this was very personal for me. My maternal great grandparents experienced the devastation of this war firsthand. Although they were both here, their families remained in Europe. My great grandmother's entire family was shot down in the street. My greatgrandfather's was hidden in Siberia by soldiers until the war was over. They spoke about it very little, but I will never forget the looks on their faces and the message in their long silence. Thank you for posting this.

Alyssa said...

I am named after a young girl who, like me, was Jewish, but unlike me at the wrong place and time--she was one blatantly shot in the street.

Aphrodite's Mortal Friend (ME) said...

I can not begin to comprehend- all I know for sure, is that I do believe I would do absolutely anything to protect a child.

Ace said...

If it was only my life, the choice would be easy. I'd hope I could do what my faith commands if I was ever faced with a choice that put my loved ones at risk. It's impossible to imagine being in that position. The people who made those choices at that time surely saw the big picture, that the world was on the verge of becoming a very different and evil place if Hitler won. I'm thinking that knowing it had to be stopped at all costs would have given strength of conviction.

Claire said...

What a brilliant post, really though-provoking. How nice to meet you.

Cxx

JenJen said...

What an intense story. Thank you for your post. I am living in Germany right now and it truly is remarkable to taste the history and feel the kinds of things that went on here.

I nominated you for the Sunshine Award today on my blog :) Check out my most recent post!

Deborah Ann said...

Did you ever see 'Sophie's Choice?' It was just as heart-wrenching as your post. A woman had to decide which child she would let the Nazi's take - her son or her daughter.

I'd like to say I would house someone, even if it meant my demise. But where my children and grandchildren are concerned, I can't honestly answer that question. Though I'm sure with the help of God I would do the right thing...

Sara @ Domestically Challenged said...

Great post- before answering, I'd have to watch the documentary myself, to immerse myself in the time period and the feelings. I am going to put it on my nexflix queu now.

Shan said...

This was excellent. I would like to say that I would risk everything for another person. I don't know though, really, if I could risk any of my children for someone else. It's a question I could have easily answered 18 years ago... and I thought my stance on issues was supposed to get clearer as I matured. Hmm...

Michelle Faith said...

As a mother you think of things like this alot. I try not to put myself though the needless pain of wondering what child I would grab first in a fire...etc. although this question is hard, I could never put my children at risk. Like Shan said above, I would have no choice then to say no. No matter how much it would pain me to do so. Great post.

Icy BC said...

This is a wonderful, and I like reading your opinion on it..Without compassion, we would be at war all the time..

Spot On Your Pants said...

Just when we think we have a bad recession or have to give up the latest Wii game, we find reminders of true sacrifice. Thanks!

Daisymum said...

I tagged your blog and I'm having a contest. As always awesome post.

Holly said...

That is a powerful post. I'd like to think I would help..how could I turn away someone in need of help? On the other hand..it is my job to keep my family secure, my children safe - they are number 1. There is not an easy answer.

Kakka said...

I have always pondered this myself. I hope I would have the courage to offer harbour to any person who needed it. But I doubt any of us can answer that question until we are put to the test. I pray we never have to find out, because I am not sure I could live with myself if I ended up turning someone away. Very thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

Heatherlyn said...

It would be very difficult if my children were involved. If it were me, I would help in a heart beat. It would be more difficult if I felt that helping would be sending my CHILDREN to the camps. How truly awful, the whole situation.

It's a scary part of history because I believe that most German people were good, so how did they end up supporting a regime like that? It could happen in any society if people don't stand together.

Fragrant Liar said...

Chilling.

I'm currently reading Elie Wiesel. Equally chilling at times.

I can't imagine living through that. And I too hope I could help strangers in need, but you never know how you will react when you fear for your the lives of your children.

The Warrior in ME said...

Wow! I always try not to read about wars and painful stuff, but i got so drawn to reading this. I don't know if i would have had the courage to forsake the lives of my family back then. Such a sad thing to do for anyone. God bless both women you mentioned. May peace be with Christabel.

Miss Go Lightly said...

I would hope that I too could muster up the courage to help anyone in need like that, but I would have to be honest, and say that I would be terrified knowing that I would be risking my family's fate as well...

Rick said...

Corrie Ten Boom is Superwoman.

sister laura said...

I saw/read The Hiding Place when I was a teenager and still remember what Corrie's sister, Betsy, said to her in the concentration camp "There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. Tell people that, Corrie, they'll believe you because you've been here."

I believe it was their family's deeeep, longstanding and REAL faith in God that compelled them to make that compassionate but excruciating choice. It calls to mind your entry about the Amish families that forgave the shooter who killed their children (one of my FAVORITE posts of yours). They had PRACTICED and GROWN in this for many, many years.

Thanks for the reminder to practice and grow in my faith too. I needed that...

P.S. I'm going to see a world premier of The Hiding Place play at a local Chicago theater in early April. I'll let you know how it goes...

love you!

fraizerbaz said...

I think about this topic a lot. Sometimes it overwhelms me.

I was recently trying to explain the holocaust to my seven year-old, which is difficult to do.

I thought it best to go to the library to see what kinds of books they have for children on the topic.

When I got there, I found a little book written in prose style called, "Yellow Star." It's based on the true story about a young girl who spent about five years in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, narrowly escaping Auschwitz. In fact, she was one of twelve surviving children in that ghetto when the Soviet soldiers came to liberate the remaining 800 captive Jews in the ghetto.

I took the book home and read it myself. I couldn't put it down - it kept me on the edge of my seat! I decided that it was probably too much for my daughter to understand now, but when she is a few years older, I will have her read it.

This book not only makes me appreciate my freedom and liberty. It also makes me thank God that I have my little girl safe and sound at home with me, something that the prisoners of the holocaust often did not have.

Post a Comment

Wow! You're going to comment? Congrats, you are now, officially, one of the COOL people!! (And, thanks!)