Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
Can you imagine circumstances that might convince you to thank God for the fleas? Here’s how two sisters in the Ravensbrück concentration camp found themselves in such a situation.
Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) worked as a watchmaker in a shop she inherited from her father in Haarlem, a city near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her profoundly religious family helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II by hiding them in their home above the watchmaker’s shop.
When the German blitzkrieg invaded the Netherlands, the ten Boom family home became a hiding place for Jews and resistance fighters hunted by the Nazis. Corrie conceived the idea of building a secret chamber in her bedroom with the entrance hidden behind a wardrobe. The small space accommodated a maximum of six people when danger lurked outside the home.
Even when the Gestapo arrested the family, they did not find the refuge that hid four Jews and two resistance fighters.
The hideout worked for nearly four years until a betrayal led to the family’s arrest on February 28, 1944. The Germans imprisoned the entire family. Corrie and her sister Betsie spent time in two different prisons until being remanded to the infamous Ravensbrück extermination camp for women near Berlin.
The guard instructed prisoners 66729 and 66730, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, to step out of the long line of prisoners. A prisoner-guide led them into their new home, a filthy dormitory with windows broken out and stuffed with rags. The putrefying smell, the soiled and rancid bedding, and general squalidness of the place overwhelmed the sisters.
A guide showed them to their bed, a second-tier platform designed for four but shared by nine prisoners. When Corrie and Betsie lay down, they became nauseous from the stench of the reeking straw. But the worst still awaited them.
Something pinched Corrie’s leg. She shot up, striking her head on the cross-slats of the platform above. “Fleas!” she cried. “Betsy, this place is swarming with them.”
Corrie and Betsie struggled down to the narrow aisle and edged to a patch of light. “Here! And here’s another one!” Corrie wailed. “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?”
Corrie heard her sister whispering over and over a brief prayer. “Show us. Show us how.” Then Betsie burst out with, “Corrie, He’s already given the answer! Before we asked, as He always does.”
Betsie explained to her sister that only that morning in their private devotions, the Scripture contained God’s answer to how they should live with the fleas. “Read it again, Corrie,” Betsie said.
Corrie looked around to make sure no guard was in sight. Then she pulled out the little Bible, that they had somehow slipped by all the inspectors, and read from First Thessalonians.
“Comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men.”
Corrie looked up, puzzled. “Go on,” Betsie said. “That’s not all.” “Oh yes,” Corrie said. “Here’s the rest.”
“Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-18).
“That’s it, Corrie! That’s His answer. Give thanks in all circumstances. That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about our new barracks.” Doubtfully, Corrie asked, “Such as?”
Betsie enumerated several things as she looked around, including how the sisters remained together, and the little Bible, and the opportunity to share God’s Word with all the women crowded together in the room. Corrie reluctantly went along. “But the fleas,” Corrie interjected, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me thankful for a flea.”
But in just a few days, an unexpected encounter confirmed Betsie’s faith, and changed Corrie ten Boom forever.
During the ten Boom sisters’ incarceration at Ravensbrück, they held worship services in the rear of their dormitory. A small light bulb cast just enough pale-yellow light to read the Bible. “They were a little preview of Heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb,” Corrie writes in “The Hiding Place.”
As the worshippers grew in number, the sisters became afraid they would attract the attention of the guards patrolling the camp. “Yet,” Corrie writes, “in the large dormitory room, there was almost no supervision at all. We didn’t understand it.” Then one evening the answer came.
Corrie returned to the barracks from a wood-gathering foray and found Betsie waiting for her. Her eyes twinkled, and she wore a grin, a rarity in Ravensbrück. “What is it, Betsie?” Corrie asked.
Buoyantly, Betsie replied, “You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room? Well, I’ve found out.” She explained that in the afternoon, while the group went about their work knitting socks for the Germans, a question arose about sock sizes. So, they asked the supervisor to come and settle the confusion.
“But she wouldn’t come,” Betsie continued. “She wouldn’t step through the door into the dormitory, and neither would the guards. You know why?” Betsie’s sense of triumph burst forth as she exclaimed, “Because of the fleas! That’s what the supervisor said: That place is crawling with fleas!”
Corrie’s mind rushed back to their first night in the barracks. She remembered Betsie bowing her head and thanking God for the fleas for which Corrie saw no use.
Metaphorically, fleas will invade our lives and trouble us. But not without the Lord. Our fleas might be illness, infirmity, conflict, loss, guilt, sorrow, or grief. Whatever the intruder, we can learn to live victoriously despite the pain it brings. And we begin by saying to the source of our trouble, as did Joseph to his brothers, “ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.”
Wise King Solomon said, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose” (Proverbs 16:4 ESV). Yes, even the fleas. Yes, even the difficulties humans must endure from time to time. God’s “way is in the whirlwind and storm” (Nahum 1:3) as well as in the soft southerly winds of prosperity.
“My brethren, count it all joy,” James counsels, “when ye fall into divers temptations (trials)” (James 1:2). The fleas that trouble us are but instruments in the hands of God that ultimately work for our good, not our harm. Thank God for the fleas.
Betsie ten Boom died that December of starvation and lack of medical care. Her last words to Corrie provided strength and an overwhelming motive to survive and carry on with what began in the worship services in Barracks 28.
(We) must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.
Corrie carried her sister’s words with her when only two weeks later, in what we can only explain as an act of God, the camp administrator released her to go home. Shortly after leaving the camp, the Germans executed all the women in her age group.
For the rest of her life, Corrie ten Boom remembered Betsie’s bowed head as she gave thanks to God for the pesky little creatures for which Corrie could see no use. In her travels to over 60 countries teaching the Word of God, Corrie sometimes encountered unforeseen obstacles and setbacks, but she never forgot to thank God for the fleas!