You’ve Got Mail #6

Dear Jahar,

Today was made hard by depression, though I feel guilty saying that to one who has suffered so much more than I. You have been heavy on my heart today and when at last I was able to think about accomplishing something beyond lying on the couch praying for my own relief, I decided to write to you again.

I want to share a passage from one of my favorite books “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom. Have you read your copy yet?

Though Betsie was now spared heavy outdoor labor, she still had to stand the twice-daily roll call. As December temperatures fell, they became true endurance tests and many did not survive. One dark morning when ice was forming a halo around each street lamp, a feeble-minded girl two rows ahead of us suddenly soiled herself. A guard rushed at her, swinging her thick leather crop while the girl shrieked in pain and terror. It was always more terrible when one of these innocent ones was beaten. Still the Aufseherin continued to whip her. It was the guard we had nicknamed “The Snake” because of the shiny dress she wore. I could see it now beneath her long wool cape, glittering in the light of the lamp as she raised her arm. I was grateful when the screaming girl at last lay still on the cinder street.

“Betsie,” I whispered when The Snake was far enough away, “what can we do for these people? Afterward I mean. Can’t we make a home for them and care for them and love them?”

“Corrie, I pray every day that we will be allowed to do this! To show them that love is greater!”

And it wasn’t until I was gathering twigs later in the morning that I realized that I had been thinking of the feeble-minded, and Betsie of their persecutors.

I tend to be like Corrie, while I suspect you, Jahar, have a heart more like Betsie. If I am right, I suspect even prison, with all its indignities, atrocities and deprivations, has not been able to steal it from you.

I walked back uncertainly towards Barracks 28. I stepped into the center room. The supervisor looked up over the heads of the knitting crew.

“Number?” she said.

I gave it and she wrote it in a black-covered book. “Pick up your yarn and a pattern sheet,” she went on. “You’ll have to find a place on one of the beds, there’s no room here.” And she turned back to the pile of finished socks on the table.

I stood blinking in the center of the room. Then grabbing a skein of the dark gray wool I dashed through the dormitory door. And thus began the closest, most joyous weeks of all the time in Ravensbruck. Side by side, in the sanctuary of God’s fleas, Betsie and I ministered the word of God to all in the room. We sat by deathbeds that became doorways of heaven. We watched women who had lost everything grow rich in hope. The knitters of Barracks 28 became the praying heart of the vast diseased body that was Ravensbruck, interceding for all in the camp – guards, under Betsie’s prodding, as well as prisoners. We prayed beyond the concrete walls for the healing of Germany, of Europe, of the world – as Mama had once done from the prison of a crippled body.

And as we prayed, God spoke to us about the world after the war. It was extraordinary; in this place where whistles and loudspeakers took the place of decisions, God asked us what we were going to do in the years ahead.

Betsie was always very clear about the answer for her and me. We were to have a house, a large one – much larger than the Beje – to which people who had been damaged by concentration-camp life would come until they felt ready to live again in the normal world.

“It’s such a beautiful house, Corrie! The floors are all inlaid wood, with statues set in the walls and a broad staircase sweeping down. And gardens! Gardens all around it where they can plant flowers. It will do them such good, Corrie, to care for flowers!”

I would stare at Betsie in amazement as she talked about these things. She spoke always as though she were describing things that she saw – as if that wide, winding staircase and those bright gardens were the reality, this cramped and filthy barracks the dream.

I get that look sometimes too, Jahar. Not always, but sometimes, when I talk about the future after you are exonerated and free…

I used to think it was because those I spoke with did not believe you would ever be found innocent and set free. Or maybe it was because they did not believe God still speaks to believers like me with specifics of divine guidance.

Now though, I believe it is most likely because we humans secretly expect Christians with extraordinary faith to look extraordinary. We don’t expect believers with a great measure of faith to be common, ordinary people who look just like us.

But the truth is this: 1 Corinthians 1: 26 – 28

Brothers, consider the time of your calling: not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are…

I am glad for the truth of this scripture passage for I am ordinary and flawed like the rest of mankind. My human strength, intellect and personality will never be enough to accomplish God’s great purposes.

“Tramp for the Lord” by Corrie ten Boom picks up her story where “The Hiding Place” ends. Here is an excerpt from it. I think you may find it particularly moving. I certainly did.

Chapter 6

Music from Broken Chords

The Germans had lost face in defeat. Their homes had been destroyed, and when they heard the enormity of Hitler’s crimes (which many Germans knew nothing about), they were filled with despair. As they returned to their Fatherland, they felt they had nothing to live for.

Friends in Darmstadt helped me rent a former concentration camp to use as a home for displaced persons. It was not big, but there was room for about one hundred sixty refugees. Soon it was full, with a long waiting list. I worked closely with the refugee program of the Lutheran Church (das Evangelische Hilfswerk) in the Darmstadt camp. Barbed wire disappeared. Flowers, light-colored paint and God’s love in the hearts of the people changed a cruel camp into a refuge where people would find the way back to life again.

Marienschwestern, the Lutheran Sisterhood of Mary, whose members had dedicated their lives to serving the Lord and spiritually hungry people, assisted with the children’s and women’s work. Pastors and members of different churches helped by building homes. I was traveling and helping raise money for the work.

The camp was crowded. Some rooms were jammed with several families. Noise and bedlam were everywhere as families, many without men because they had been killed in the war, tried to carry on the most basic forms of living. Often I would walk through the camp talking with the lonely, defeated people and trying to bring them hope and cheer.

One afternoon I spotted an elderly woman huddled in the corner of a big room. She was obviously new to the camp. She had been put in the big room along with three other families and told she could set up housekeeping in the corner. There she crouched, like a whipped child, her faded, worn dress pulled tightly around her frail, wasted body. I could sense she was distressed by the bedlam of all the crying children, but most of all defeated by life itself.

I went to her, sat beside her on the floor and asked who she was. I learned she had been a professor of music at the Dresden Conservatory before the war. Now she had nothing.

I asked her to tell me about her life, knowing that sometimes it helps just to have someone willing to listen. She told me that a minister in a nearby town had given her permission to play his piano. She had also learned of several farmers’ children nearby who wanted to receive music lessons. But the minister’s home was miles away, and the only way to get there was on foot. It all seemed so hopeless.

“You were a professor of piano?” I asked excitedly. “I am a great lover of Germany’s master musician, Johann Sebastian Bach.”

For an instant her eyes lighted up. “Would you care to accompany me to the minister’s home?” she asked with great dignity. “I would be most happy to play for you.”

It was a great privilege, and even though we had to walk many miles, I sensed God was doing something special.

She seated herself at the battered piano. I looked at the instrument. Even though it had been saved from the bombing, it had not been protected from the rain. The strings were exposed through the warped frame, and I could see they were rusted. Some were broken and curled around the others. The pedals had long been broken off, and the keyboard was almost entirely without ivory. If any of the notes played, it would be a miracle.

Looking up, the old woman said, “What would you like me to play?”

Silently I prayed, knowing that failure at this moment could crush her forever. Then, to my own amazement, I heard myself saying, “Would you please play the Chromatic Fantasy of Bach?”

I was aghast. Why had I picked one of the most difficult of all piano pieces for this old woman to play on such a ruined instrument? Yet the moment I said it, I saw a light flicker behind her eyes and a slight, knowing smile played across her tired face. She nodded and with great finesse, put her fingers on the broken keyboard.

I could hardly believe my ears. From that damp, battered old piano flowed the beautiful music of Bach as her skilled fingers raced up and down the broken, chipped keys. Tears came to my eyes and ran down my cheeks as I thought of wounded Germany, left with only the remnants of the past, still able to play beautiful music. Such a nation will survive to create again, I thought.

As the notes of Bach faded from the air, the words of an old gospel song, written by the blind composer Fanny J. Crosby, came to mind:

Down in the human heart, crush’d by the tempter,

Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;

Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness

Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.

As we walked back to the former concentration camp, my companion had a new spring in her step. “It has been many years since I played the Chromatic Fantasy,” she said. “Once I was a concert pianist, and many of my pupils are now outstanding musicians. I had a beautiful home in Dresden that was destroyed by the bombs. I had to flee and was not able to take one thing with me.”

“Oh, no, you are wrong,” I said. “You took with you your most prized possession.”

“And what is that?” she asked, shocked.

“Your music. For that which is in your heart can never be taken from you.”

Then I told her of what I had learned in Ravensbruck, of Betsie’s vision, and that God’s love still stands when all else has fallen. “In the concentration camp they took all we had, even made us stand naked for hours at a time without rest, but they could not take Jesus from my heart. Ask Jesus to come into your life. He will give you riches no man can take away from you.”

We returned to the camp in silence, but I knew the Holy Spirit was pricking her heart, reminding her of the things that man cannot snatch from us.

Soon it was time for me to leave the camp and move on to other fields. The day I left she was sitting in that same corner of the room. A boy was playing his mouth organ, a baby was crying, there were the sounds of shouts and the pounding of a hammer against a wooden crate. The room was full of discord and disharmonic noises. But her eyes were closed, and there was a faint smile on her face. I knew God had given her something that no one could take from her ever again.

You and I are like that old woman, Jahar: we have lost much and suffered injustice. And we are like that old piano. We may show signs of the struggle in our bodies. We may have limitations we did not struggle with before. But beautiful music can still come out of us when we are touched by Jesus’ love.

Have you experienced His loving presence yet? I and many others are praying that you will. You will not leave prison without having met and accepted Jesus as savior and Lord and without coming to know Him as the friend that sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24) I have no doubt about that.

I want to end this letter today by revisiting a particular section of “The Hiding Place.”

That very week I began to speak. If this was God’s new work for me, then He would provide the courage and the words. Through the streets and suburbs of Haarlem I bumped on my bicycle rims, bringing the message that joy runs deeper than despair.

It was news that people needed to hear that cheerless spring of 1945. No Bride of Haarlem tree filled the air with fragrance; only the stump had been too big to haul off for firewood. No tulips turned fields into carpets of color; the bulbs had all been eaten. No family was without its tragedy. In churches and club rooms and private homes in those desperate days I told the truths Betsie and I had learned in Ravensbruck.

And always at these meetings, I spoke of Betsie’s first vision: of a home here in Holland where those who had been hurt could learn to live again unafraid. At the close of one of these talks a slender, aristocratic lady came up to me. I knew her by sight: Mrs. Bierens de Haan whose home in the suburb of Bloemendaal was said to be one of the most beautiful in Holland. I had never seen it, only the trees at the edge of the huge park in which it was set, and so I was astonished when this elegantly dressed lady asked me if I were still living in the ancient little house on the Barteljorisstraat.

“How did you – yes, I do. But – “

“My mother often told me about it. She went there frequently to see an aunt of yours who, I believe, was in charitable work?”

In a rush it all came back. Opening the side door to let in a swish of satin and rustle of feathers. A long gown and a plumed hat brushing both sides of the narrow stairs. Then Tante Jans standing in her doorway with a look that froze in the bones the thought of bouncing a ball.

“I am a widow,” Mrs. Bierens de Haan was saying, “but I have five sons in the Resistance. Four are still alive and well. The fifth we have not heard from since he was taken to Germany. As you spoke just now something in me kept saying, ‘Jan will come back and in gratitude you will open your home for this vision of Betsie ten Boom.’”

It was two weeks later that a small boy delivered a scented envelope to the side door; inside in slanted purple letters was a single line, “Jan is home.”

Mrs. Bierens de Haan herself met me at the entrance to her estate. Together we walked up an avenue of ancient oaks meeting above our heads. Rounding the final bend, we saw it, a fifty-six-room mansion in the center of a vast lawn. Two elderly gardeners were poking about the flowerbeds.

“We’ve let the gardens go,” Mrs. Bierens de Haan said. “But I thought we might put them back in shape. Don’t you think released prisoners might find therapy in growing things?”

I didn’t answer. I was staring up at the gabled roof and the leaded windows. Such tall, tall windows…

“Are there – “my throat was dry. “Are there inlaid wood floors inside, and a broad gallery around a central hall, and – and bas-relief statues set along the walls?”

Mrs. Bierens de Haan looked at me in surprise. “You’ve been here then! I don’t recall –”

“No,” I said. “I heard about it from –”

I stopped. How could I explain what I did not understand?

“From someone who’s been here,” she finished simply, not understanding my perplexity.

“Yes,” I said. “From someone who’s been here.”

I don’t know where God will lead you after release from prison, Jahar, but my offer to take you in stands – no matter who ridicules or despises me for extending it. I don’t yet have much of a place to offer, but I am confident if and when the time comes for you to consider it, I will.

In June the first of many hundreds of people arrived at the beautiful home in Bloemendaal. Silent or endlessly relating their losses, withdrawn or fiercely aggressive, every one was a damaged human being. Not all had been in concentration camps; some had spent two, three, even four years hidden in attic rooms and back closets here in Holland.

One of the first of these was Mrs. Kan, widow of the watch-shop owner up the street, Mr. Kan had died at the underground address; she came to us alone, a stooped, white-haired woman who started at every sound. Others came to Bloemendaal, scarred body and soul by bombing raids or loss of family or any of the endless dislocations of war. In 1947 we began to receive Dutch people who had been prisoners of the Japanese in Indonesia.

Though none of this was by design, it proved to be the best possible setting for those who had been imprisoned in Germany. Among themselves they tended to live and relive their special woes; in Bloemendaal they were reminded that they were not the only ones who had suffered. And for all these people alike, the key to healing turned out to be the same. Each had a hurt he had to forgive: the neighbor who had reported him, the brutal guard, the sadistic soldier.

Strangely enough, it was not the Germans or the Japanese that people had most trouble forgiving; it was their fellow Dutchmen who had sided with the enemy. I saw them frequently in the streets, NSBers with their shaved heads and furtive eyes. These former collaborators were now in pitiful condition, turned out of homes and apartments, unable to find jobs, hooted at in the streets.

At first it seemed to me that we should invite them too to Bloemendaal, to live side by side with those they had injured, to seek a new compassion on both sides. But it turned out to be too soon for people working their way back from such hurt; the two times I tried it, it ended in open fights. And so as soon as homes and schools for the feeble-minded opened again around the country I turned the Beje over to these former NSBers.

This was how it went, those years after the war, experimenting, making mistakes, learning. The doctors, psychiatrists and nutritionists who came free of charge to any place that cared for war victims, sometimes expressed surprise at our loose-run ways. At morning and evening worship people drifted in and out, table manners were atrocious; one man took a walk into Haarlem every morning at 3:00am. I could not bring myself to sound a whistle or to scold, or to consider gates or curfews.

And, sure enough, in their own time and their own way, people worked out the deep pain within them. It most often started, as Betsie had known it would, in the garden. As flowers bloomed or vegetables ripened, talk was less of the bitter past, more of tomorrow’s weather. As their horizons broadened, I would tell them about the people living in the Beje, people who never had a visitor, never a piece of mail. When mention of the NSBers no longer brought on a volley of self-righteous wrath, I knew the person’s healing was not far away. And the day he said, “Those people you spoke of – I wonder if they’d care for some homegrown carrots,” then I knew the miracle had taken place.

Knowing God and how He works like I do, Jahar, it would not surprise me at all to hear you tell me one day how you used to lie on your bed in your cell and “see” a house, a particular window or piece of furniture, a room, a yard, a woman with cats… and that you would wonder what it could mean and why would this strange, crazy hope rise up in your heart when all around you there was nothing to inspire such a feeling…

No, Jahar, that would not surprise me at all…

May God continue to guide your heart and give you peace – even as He prepares the way to give you answers.

I will write again soon.




3 thoughts on “You’ve Got Mail #6”

      1. you can take credit for sharing it and for this beautiful letter to Dzhokhar that you wrote. I love it.

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