The Hiding Place

by

Corrie Ten Boom

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The Hiding Place: Ravensbruck Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
For two more days, the train crawls through Germany. Some loaves of bread have been placed in the train and the women pass them around, but there’s no way for the women to relieve themselves and the air stinks. After a while, thirst becomes the dominant concern of the women. Every once in a while, a guard pushes a pail of water in the door, but without any plan or cohesion those nearest drink it all.
Corrie presents unspeakable conditions like this as the end result of intolerance—when Nazis start by denying the essential humanity between all people, they end up treating people as if they aren’t human at all.
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After four days, the train car is opened, and the women crawl out on cramped knees. They’re near a lake, with a church on the other side. Some women bring buckets of water for the weak to drink. After a while, the guards—some of them barely more than girls—arrange them in a column and march them down a road. On their way, they pass by local people who seem extraordinarily strong and healthy. The children look at the prisoners with interest, but the adults avert their eyes.
The contrast between the prisoners and the bystanders is striking. Even though it’s unlikely that the people could do very much to help them, it’s also clear that they feel a sense of guilt, which they attempt to avoid by refusing to contemplate the injustice in their midst.
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Eventually, an enormous camp comes into view. The women realize with horror that this is Ravensbruck, the “notorious women’s extermination camp.” As they approach, Corrie thinks about the Bible concealed inside her clothes. It seems unimaginable that God designed his teachings for this cruel world.
Although Corrie now sees Ravensbruck as totally disconnected from the Bible, she will inevitably come to believe that the Bible gives her exactly the tools to meet this challenge.
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Marching into the gates, the women wash off in outdoor spigots, surrounding by a squad of guards shouting and swinging their whips. The guards prod them to a large canvas tent, covered with straw. Corrie sinks down, but immediately realizes that the straw is covered with lice. Still, there’s nowhere else to sleep, so they’re forced to endure it. The women pass around a pair of scissors and take turns cutting each other’s hair.
Again, Corrie, Betsie, and the other women are treated literally as if they were animals, forced to sleep outside in the straw. However, they manage to combat this denigration with small communal actions, like sharing the scissors in order to mitigate the effect of the lice.
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However, at some point the guards drive the women out of the tent, forcing them to lay out their blankets on the hard, unprotected ground. Everyone is distraught, but Betsie starts to sing a hymn in her high, clear voice. The other women join in shakily. In the middle of the night, it starts raining; by morning everyone is soaked and covered in mud.
This is a desperate situation, and Betsie’s hymn singing can’t improve it in any concrete way. However, by inducing the women to join together she creates a sense of community and solidarity.
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For two days the women have to stand outside all day and sleep in the mud. Betsie develops a harsh cough and intestinal cramps, which Corrie tries to soothe by wrapping her in Nollie’s sweater and feeding her drops of vitamin oil. However, when they’re finally taken inside for processing, Corrie sees that each woman has to give up her personal belongs, strip down, and walk past the male guards into the shower room.
This new indignity is one of the disasters Corrie mentions in the first chapter. Since the reader is hearing about it for the second time, it creates the sense that this “must” happen, that it is part of a God-given plan for Corrie and Betsie’s lives.
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Corrie knows that Betsie needs the vitamin oil, and she desperately wants to save her Bible. She begins to pray, but suddenly Betsie staggers; it seems like she’s about to faint. Corrie asks permission to use the toilets, and a guard snaps at her to use the drain holes in the shower room. Unwatched in the room, Corrie sees a pile of benches; she quickly hides the sweater, vitamin oil, and Bible under them. When she and Betsie are finally admitted to the shower room, they can hide their possessions under their new prison dresses.
Corrie manages to save her most important physical possessions—the sweater and the vitamin oil—as the well as the Bible, which gives her emotional comfort. This action creates an equivalency between the earthly and the spiritual sustenance that the respective objects provide. 
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Corrie worries that the Bible is visible under her dress, but she decides to trust in God’s protection. On her way out, the guards body search every woman, but somehow they forget about Corrie and the Bible passes unnoticed. Corrie arrives in another set of temporary barracks “bringing not only the Bible, but a new knowledge of the power of Him whose story it was.” She has to share a bunk with Betsie and three other women, but she’s glad of the body heat and the ability to sleep inside.
Corrie sees the guards’ oversight as an act of divine intervention. Just a few days ago she thought that Ravensbruck could have nothing to do with God or the Bible, but now she feels that it has given her an enlightening experience and revived her faith.
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Every morning at 4:30, all the women have to gather outside for an excruciatingly long roll call, during which they can hear screams of the prisoners in the nearby punishment barracks. Corrie feels that nothing makes sense, that there is too much suffering to understand. However, she also feels a deep sense of purpose, as she and Betsie spend every available moment sharing the Bible and leading prayers among the desperate and demoralized women. She feels that she lives two separate lives in Ravensbruck—on the tangible level, she is suffering and starving, but in “the life we lived with God,” things “grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.”
Even though her circumstances are terrible, Corrie feels a new sense of purpose as she and Betsie encourage faith among the women. This feeling helps her see imprisonment as God’s way of helping her grow in her faith, rather than as a punishment or a human disaster independent of God. However, although she can rationalize her personal suffering, she can’t explain why God allowed the camps to occur in the first place and permitted the other women—most of whom don’t seem to feel it’s a morally enlightening experience—to suffer there as well.
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Corrie has always believed in the Bible, but reading it now she feels she doesn’t even have to try to have faith—rather, the book is “simply a description of the way things are.” For example, she’s read many times about Jesus’s arrest and humiliation at the hands of the Romans, but she now identifies personally with this story, especially on Fridays when everyone has to strip naked for an interminable medical examination, watched by male guards. One morning, Corrie realizes that Jesus’s captors took his clothes away from him, too.
Throughout the novel Corrie has wondered how to follow religious teachings when the world seems to diverge from the Bible and turn towards evil. Now she realizes that the problems she’s confronting—maintaining dignity in the midst of persecution, sacrificing oneself for others, responding to suffering—are all part of Christ’s life. To her, it seems like her life now is closer to the reality of the Bible than her life in peacetime.
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Eventually, the prisoners are moved from temporary barracks to permanent ones. Corrie hopes that the move will bring a better quality of life—maybe even a nurse to cure Betsie’s cough, as the vitamin oil is running low. However, when they finally arrive at Barracks 28, they see that the building is filthy, smells rancid, and is missing half its windows. Inside are just enormous bunks piled three high.
This passage emphasizes the enormous contrast between Corrie’s appalling physical circumstances and the moral revelations she is experiencing as a result of imprisonment.
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Corrie discovers the bunks are infested with fleas and asks Betsie how they can possibly live here, but her sister simply asks God to “show us how.” She tells Corrie that the Bible passage they were reading just that morning tells them to “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.” Corrie points out that there’s nothing to be thankful for, but Betsie reminds her that they’ve been assigned there together, and that they’ve still have their Bible. She goes on to thank God sincerely for the fleas; when Corrie protests, she responds that the Bible says to give thanks in “all circumstances,” not just “pleasant circumstances.”
Betsie’s tranquil response to the ever-worsening conditions of the camp serves as an example of religious faith to the reader, but Corrie’s doubts and inability to pray with complete sincerity is much more relatable and compelling. This passage is a reminder that one can aspire to religious purity, embodied by Betsie, without always succeeding in living up to it.
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When the other women in Barracks 28 arrive home exhausted from hard labor, they are not pleased to share their quarters with new arrivals. The building is so overcrowded that the beds sometimes break, sending their occupants crashing down into the next level. The women are constantly quarreling, and there’s not even a common language in which to communicate.
This is the first time that Corrie and Betsie have encountered real strife among prisoners. This is a reflection of the truly dire conditions at Ravensbruck; but to them it’s also a sign that their presence might do some good.
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As Corrie tries to sleep, a group of women are slapping each other in a dispute as to whether the window should be closed or shut. Betsie starts to pray loudly, asking God to “send Your peace into this room.” Eventually, the noise dies down and the women agree to leave the window half-open. Corrie gives thanks for Betsie’s presence.
Whether or not the women relate to the Christian spirit of Betsie’s prayer or are happy to hear a calm voice, it seems that Betsie’s invocation of a peaceful and loving God has brought some tranquility and greater cohesion to the room.
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Here as well the prisoners have to get up before dawn for roll call, which takes place in the increasingly cold square outside the barracks. Everyone is assigned to work crews, and for weeks Betsie and Corrie work in a Siemans factory just outside the camp, doing miserably hard labor that leaves them weak and exhausted. As they shuffle back to the camp at the end of the day, the local people avoid looking at them.
Corrie has spent her entire memoir arguing that ordinary people can and should be active in the fight against injustice; in this light her description of the local people seems like a tacit indictment, suggesting that rather than being completely powerless they choose to be bystanders.
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At the camp they line up for their meager dinner and return to the barracks, where Betsie and Corrie lead a nightly prayer service. Each night women from different Christian denominations share hymns, chants, and songs. Afterwards, Betsie reads aloud from the Bible, while other women translate the text into different languages. At such times, Corrie thinks about the many different churches in Haarlem, each fenced off from the others, and concludes that “in darkness God’s truth shines most clear.” For some reason, the guards never enter the dormitory room and catch the women during their service—Corrie is puzzled by this lack of surveillance.
Again, the Bible is a harbinger of solidarity—if not between different religions, at least between different sects. Like most of the book’s compelling religious experiences, this one arises from the intertwining of different faiths. Corrie interprets the beauty of these impromptu circumstances as another sign that her imprisonment is part of God’s benevolent plan.
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Meanwhile, the vitamin oil bottle, which should have been empty long ago, is still issuing drops of oil. This is especially astounding because Betsie is sharing it with many of the other women, although Corrie is always tempted to hoard it and prioritize her sister’s health. Betsie compares this to a Bible story in which a faithful woman’s oil jar is never empty, but Corrie doesn’t think this is an adequate explanation.
Even though Corrie has just said that her life seems to uncannily echo events in the Bible, she doubts Betsie’s interpretation of this development as an actual miracle. Even she is sometimes unwilling to see events as God’s personal intervention.
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One day, a young Dutch woman who works in the hospital and often steals supplies brings a sack of yeast compound, which can function as a vitamin, to the barracks. Corrie decides to save the yeast until the bottle is finally empty, but that night it won’t produce a single drop.
Just as Corrie received a Bible from Nollie after she gave away all her Gospels, she gets more vitamins exactly when she needs them. In her eyes this is a sign that God will always provide the resources that are truly needed.
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As winter approaches all the prisoners are issued coats, and Betsie and Corrie are transferred to another work crew, digging up the ground outside the camp wall. This too is grueling labor, and Betsie especially stumbles frequently and is only able to carry tiny amounts of dirt. One day a guard notices her feeble efforts and shouts at her tauntingly, calling her “Madame Baroness” and prodding her to work faster. Corrie feels like she could kill this woman, but Betsie just laughs, admitting that she is too weak to be a good worker. The young guard hits Betsie with her crop and Corrie almost rushes at her before Betsie stops her. Blood is pooling on Betsie’s cheek, but she tells Corrie to “look at Jesus only.”
This scene echoes the Biblical episode in which Roman soldiers taunt Christ on his way to execution. In both cases, a victim—Christ and Betsie—is forced to do hard labor while hostile soldiers look on. In both cases, a soldier decides to add insult to injury by taunting the victim. Here, Betsie aligns herself with Christ by literally “turning the other cheek” after being hit, just as he did and encouraged his supporters to do. Refusing to be denigrated, Betsie makes this experience into a moment of closeness to Christ.
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Betsie begins to cough up blood, but her fever is too low for admittance into the hospital. Corrie hates going to the hospital ward, which is full of the sickest and most suffering women, but Betsie sees it just as another “setting in which to talk about Jesus.” No matter where she is, she always speaks to the people around her about “His nearness and His yearning to come into their lives.”
For Betsie, going to the hospital is another inspiration to continue in her ministry. For Corrie—perhaps more reasonably—it is an event that makes leads her to ask again exactly why God would want people to suffer like this.
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At last, Betsie’s fever becomes high enough and she’s admitted into the hospital. Reluctantly, Corrie leaves her there and goes back to the barracks, where other women are conducting the service in their place. As she climbs into her bunk, she reflects on the improvement Betsie has wrought on the barracks –the women are polite and kind to each other since her arrival. Still, even packed in with so many people, Corrie feels “miserably alone.”
Even though Corrie is pleased with the increased solidarity within the barracks, this is not a substitute for being with her beloved family. Betsie’s absence is reminder that her bond with her sister is the most important relationship in her life, outside of which she doesn’t really know how to function.
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