My current writing project is a screenplay about Betsie and Corrie ten Boom. Their notoriety stems from their efforts to help Jews in Holland avoid persecution during World War II. The German Gestapo arrested the sisters on the last day of February 1944. Thus began a succession of imprisonments until Corrie regained her freedom at the end of the year. Betsie’s release was through the crematorium at Ravensbruck, the notorious Nazi prison camp for women.
My goal in putting their plight into a feature length script is to visually portray the strength of human conviction, when faced with even the vilest opposition. To do their story justice, my approach – as documented in a previous message – involves combining Corrie’s written accounts with the fact-based history of Ravensbruck written by Sara Helm in her 2016 book, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.
Multiple Sources, Single Event
Last week I wrote about the conflicts that can arise when a historian relies on oral histories. This is what I discovered with Sara Helm’s book. Her many sources, each a survivor of the prison camp ordeal, gave varying accounts of the same events. This was shown most dramatically with the conflicting stories about a children’s Christmas party held in 1944. This conflict was sufficient enough motivation for me to delete from my script an otherwise visually compelling moment of big screen worthiness.
Working with one source, in my case Corrie ten Boom, would seem to offer the hope of avoiding the difficulty of deciding who to believe, when you consult multiple sources. A similar problem arises, though, when your single source is the author of more than one book about the same experience. This is the case with Corrie’s books, proving there can be problems with sequels just as there can be problems with gathering oral histories.
One Source, Multiple Presentations
Corrie wrote a handful of books about her prison experience. The first appeared in 1947, a mere two years after her release from Ravensbruck. Entitled A Prisoner and Yet… Corrie as the sole author, penned a series of vignettes, loosely tied together by location; her home in Haarlem, the three prisons in which she and Betsie struggled to survive, and finally home again following her release. The timeliness of the publication lends credence to the viability of her memories, but the work was not widely known. This changed in 1971 with the publication of a sequel of sorts, a retelling of Corrie’s affirming home life, underground activities and incarceration in the prison camp nightmare.
The Hiding Place covered much of the same ground as Corrie’s first book. This time, however, she made good use of co-authors, Elizabeth and John Sherrill’s talents. The narrative is more fluid and engaging, providing greater insight into Corrie’s family life and how it shaped her commitment to helping Jews avoid capture by the Gestapo. This second publication proved to be the more successful and was made into a feature film in 1975.
Three more books, pertinent to Corrie’s prison camp experiences, followed: Tramp for the Lord in 1974, Prison Letters in 1975, and In My Father’s House in 1976. This quick succession of books speaks to Corrie’s celebrity following the success of The Hiding Place. I, like many others, wanted to know more about this amazing woman and the faith she proclaimed to a worldwide audience.
The problem is the varying accounts don’t always matchup. This is a problem when trying to decide what is in and what is out of a script purporting to be an authentic portrayal of two women caught up in a Nazi firestorm. For example….
The Mystery of Lieutenant Rahm
Lieutenant Rahm handled the interrogation for both Corrie and Betsie during their first imprisonment. His exposure to these two faithful women brought him face to face with his own complicity in the Nazi reign of terror. Corrie and Betsie shared their faith in God with him. Corrie even acknowledges that Betsie’s sessions with Rahm always closed in prayer. However, Corrie left Rahm’s spiritual fate unknown when she wrote A Prisoner and Yet… and The Hiding Place. Here’s the problem: in her 1975 book, Prison Letters, she closes with a brief chapter entitled Afterword. This chapter focuses solely on a German caseworker she identifies as Hans Rahms. Note the slight name change and the loss of rank.
She writes that during their final interrogative session, Rahm(s) presented Corrie with a list of names of people in her underground network, who conspired with her to conceal Jews from Holland’s Nazi occupiers. Corrie admits she was terrified at seeing the list and could not explain away its significance. Rahm(s) shocked her by tossing the papers into the stove, which heated his interrogation hut. It is a very dramatic moment and is currently included in my screenplay, even though this scene was omitted in her previous writings.
The Sudden Appearance of Tiny
Another departure from Corrie’s representations of life in prison involved her release from Ravensbruck. Her accounts in her first two books indicate that she knew she was being released, when the chief guard of her block told her to step aside during morning roll call. The version she wrote about in Tramp for the Lord, however, varied from these two accounts by the introduction of a young woman named Tiny.
Corrie writes that the head guard instructed her to stand at position number one in the roll call line up. Tiny stood next to her. This was a cold December day. The wind sent chills through Corrie to the extent she shivered noticeably. Tiny massaged Corrie’s back in an attempt to stimulate Corrie’s circulation. It was then that Corrie muttered a dire question in a barely audible voice, asking why she was singled out to stand in position number one. Tiny, a two-year veteran of Ravensbruck, answered “death sentence”.
More drama, more inclusion in my screenplay, even though this account is another omission from Corrie’s previous writings. The problem with sequels is that they can be just as contradictory as oral histories. My resolve as screenplay historian is to be as dramatic as possible without altering the facts of Corrie and Betsie’s witness to God’s love in the presence of their enemies.