The twentieth century was the bloodiest century in history. Take that in for a second. We are accustomed to think of the Middle Ages as barbaric and “Dark”, but the economic pressures of a subsistence agrarian economy limited the extent and length of their wars, holy days in the church limited when wars could be fought, and the very feudal system of their society restrained wars as most vassals were only required forty days of service. Only an industrial society, the type of which emerged in the West in the nineteenth century, allows for the type of “total” war that perpetually subjects the entire population to both the dangers and sacrifices of war.
Not only was the twentieth century the bloodiest in history, it also gave birth to the very worst of all governmental systems: totalitarianism. While Nero killed people for disliking his poetry and Caligula, in his baldness, had men executed for having full heads of hair, these tyrants never came close to controlling schools, businesses, food supplies, markets, internal travel, etc. like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao did in their attempt to control the totality of life, down to men’s very thoughts. It is a sobering thought (and it destroys the very notion of secular progress) to consider that we parents were all born into the most violent and politically repressive century in all of human history.
The Second World War was arguably the worst conflict of this bloody century and the Holocaust was arguably the greatest atrocity of the war (though Pol Pot’s killing fields, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s treatment of ethnic minorities like the Ukrainians and his extensive gulag system are all stiff competition). Much ink has been spilled over the Holocaust and it shows up constantly in popular culture from myths like the X-Men to tragi-comedies like Jo-Jo Rabbit and La Vita Bella. Given the heaviness of the topic, the relevance of it as the defining tragedy of our living memory, and given the vast quantity of choices, why do we introduce our students to it via Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place?
The first reason is that ten Boom was able to discern God’s hand, God’s loving Providence, in the midst of one of humanity’s darkest hours. Every account of the Holocaust discusses the human degradation, the pain, the horror, and the suffering that filled it. Ten Boom does this. But she also shows that our God is not aloof; our God is not One that is unaware of our suffering. God cares for us in our suffering and provides for us. One of the most memorable instances of this is when ten Boom relates how thankful the women were that God provided lice for them as it kept the male guards and soldiers from harming them.
Second, while it is clear to all that the young men that served and upheld the Nazi regime were evil, ten Boom probes deeper. She was able to perceive not only their wickedness, but how very lost and broken they were. This did not excuse their sin, but it did allow her to have compassion on them—her tormenters, her captors, were held captive by a far greater enemy: sin. This led her to be able to forgive and share the gospel with Nazi guards after the war. It is hard to imagine a greater act of mercy than this.
Finally, ten Boom showed that while we cannot choose the circumstances that we live in, we can always live faithfully through them. We can be subject to an unjust regime, but we can still live justly. We can be under the power of merciless people, but we can still show mercy. Our country can be taken over by faithless men, but our God is still faithful and He can give us the grace to walk faithfully through the very worst oppression. If our God was present in Auschwitz we can trust Him to be with us no matter what we face.