Reading about the Secret Annex in Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl reminded of another secret hiding place I once visited and had written about in Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible. Like the Annex, this hiding place was well disguised and like the Annex, it harbored refugees targeted during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.
Here is a recount of a post I wrote in 2015 after my visit to 19 Barteljorisstraat.
From the street, 19 Barteljorisstraat in the Haarlem district just outside of Amsterdam looks ordinary enough. A shop on the main floor, living quarters above, the same configuration as dozens of other buildings along the busy, cobbled street. Little outside hints of the story of courage inside, one that I read and wrote about, and that has lingered ever since.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I wrangled a day out a tight schedule and convinced my wife to accompany me on a group tour of the house. Along with twenty others, we waited at a dark green door in the alley way until our guide ushered us inside and up a flight of stairs into what was once a living room. After setting the scene for what we would see later, she guided us up a tight, winding staircase to a small room at the top of the house. Free of furnishings now, the room looked much like the exterior of the building. Ordinary. Hardly the stage for a courageous story. Yet that’s exactly what occurred in this plain looking space.
During World War II, when the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany, forty-eight-year-old Corrie ten Boom, her sister Bessie and their father, Caspar, lived and worked at 19 Barteljorisstraat. They ran a watch shop on the main floor and lived above. Risking death, the ten Booms harboured Jews and other refugees, hiding them until safer quarters could be found. Keeping the operation secret from the Gestapo was difficult, and each day the threat of a raid grew stronger.
To hide their ‘guests’, the ten Booms and members of the Dutch resistance constructed a false wall in the room at the top of the stairs. Over a period of 6 days, ‘customers’ flowed in and out of the watch shop carrying cleverly disguised items – hammers, trowels, bricks or mortar — tucked inside briefcases, boxes or rolled-up newspapers. Working unnoticed, they constructed a brick wall across the rear of the bedroom to create a secret room — a hiding place for ‘guests’ should the Gestapo come calling.
To supply oxygen, workers rigged up a ventilation system. They made the new wall look as old as others in the house, and installed a bookcase on the left side of it. A sliding panel, 60 centimetres by 60 centimetres in the bottom of a storage cabinet became a hidden door. Because it was constructed out of brick, the wall absorbed sounds and hid the hollowness behind.
For a year and a half, the ten Booms harboured refugees and lived dangerous double lives while Nazi security tightened. Then in February 1944, the Gestapo showed up at the house. With just seconds to spare, six ‘guests’ squirreled into the hiding place, dropped the sliding panel, and stood shoulder to shoulder while soldiers searched the house. Convinced that Jews were present somewhere, a sentry was posted outside.
After 47 hours confined in the tight space, the ‘guests’ escaped, but Corrie and her family were not so fortunate. Arrested and interrogated, they were confined to prison cells and detainment centres in Holland and Germany. Bessie died and so did her father, but Corrie lived through the experience. After the war, she co-wrote The Hiding Place, a book about the secret room, and she toured the world spreading messages of forgiveness and renewal until her death in 1983 at the age of 91.
Today, the ten Boom watch shop on the ground floor is still operational, though different owners now run it. The upper floors are a museum, and the brick wall in the small room at the top has been opened so that visitors can see the tight space behind, and marvel, as I did, at the courage it took to defy the enemy patrolling the streets outside.