When Jake Speck called me about this time last year and asked if I’d be interested in adapting Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place for the stage, my response was “Heck yes! But hang on. Before I agree, let me go read the book and see if I like it.”
The truth was I had only the faintest idea of who Corrie was and honestly didn’t know if hers was the kind of story that would suit my abilities as a writer. I ordered the book and ate it up in a couple of days. World War II. Nazis. The Resistance. Smuggling of Jews. The Holocaust. Faith in the face of nigh-unquenchable darkness. I called Jake back and told him I was in, but I had little idea what I was getting into.
Things have come a long way since that phone call, both literally and figuratively.
In October, Jennifer and I flew to the Netherlands to visit Corrie’s home, the “Beje,” in the city of Haarlem. We stayed an hour outside of Amsterdam at Dutch L’Abri, a cozy little commune in the countryside where we picked apples, foraged walnuts, installed solar panels, washed dishes, ate amazing home-cooked meals (including legit Dutch Apple Pie), and participated in a lot of rich convesation with people from all over the world. My thanks to Robb Ludwick and his family for their hospitality.
After getting over our jet lag, we drove into Haarlem where we walked through the Grote Markt flush with flowers and fruit (though I’m sad we missed tulip season), we visited the gothic cathedral of St. Bavo where the Ten Booms went to church, we strolled alongside canals under the eaves of pastel colored houses, we ate stroopwafel by the yard and edam by the pound, and we found ourselves at last in an alley of the Barteljorristraat knocking at back door of the Ten Boom watch shop where Corrie and Betsie spent most of their lives.
I’ve never been good at tourism. I dislike the fakery of it. I don’t usually care for the well-marked historical route or the guided tour. I want to be left alone to know a place in an intuitive rather than an instructive way. I want to get lost and find my own path and therefore come to the long-sought place in a way that can be said to be in some way authentic, even if only in my bumbling 21st-century American way.
But my distaste for the tourist trap goes only so far. Its limits stop abruptly at my personal interest in a particular subject. For instance, the English countryside might be merely pretty (no small beauty, mind you!), until I cross into a hidden glade and discover that Samuel Coleridge walked here and wrote here, or Lewis and Tolkien ate there, drank here, read stories over that way. Then suddenly I’m all ears. I want the guide. I want the tour. I want the legend to the map that unlocks the stories of all the ghosts lingering nearby.
So when I stepped into the backdoor of the Ten Boom’s Beje, I stepped into a world where the air hung thick with age-old laughter and tears and fears and time-tried faith and stories. So many stories. In this house, the Ten Booms led a prayer group for the Jewish people for a 100 years before that love of one’s neighbor culminated in the series of events told in The Hiding Place. I felt suddenly conscious of and humbled by the strange fact that I, of all people, had been invited to help tell the story of this place. Incredibly, I would get to join my small story to the mythic edifice of this old Beje and its giants of the Faith.
The Beje’s ghosts took my hand, pulled me further in, and began to whisper.
The tour guides led us through the home. Little of it was original, but it was furnished to look as it might have in the 1940s. The atmosphere felt oddly familiar, like the home of an elderly relative from some distant branch of the family tree. The carpets, the wallpaper, the wooden desk, the brittle chair, the winding stair: everything was burdened with history, pregnant with lost stories. Up and up we climbed until we entered Corrie’s bedroom, and there, through a hole in the false wall, the “Hiding Place” itself was, ironically, on public display. We crawled inside and felt its closeness. We listened as its silence told its tale.
This then is the calling of the writer, the novelist—the playwright. To strive against the forgetfulness of the world. To proclaim a whisper in defiance of cacophony. . . . Only by story does the world remember. Pete Peterson
After about an hour, the tour wound down and spit us back out into the alleyway where it began, but the ghostly whispers in my ears didn’t fade. They would follow me for the rest of the trip through the Netherlands and across Germany to our final destination and the darkness crouching there in the east. Eventually, those voices would grow, keen, wail, and thunder as we followed the Ten Boom path into the past, but for now, here in Haarlem, they whisper in quiet desperation, because in that alleyway surrounded by the cafes and restaurants and hotels and flowers and commerce and vacationing tourists, they are being drowned out. They fade. They wither. They are slowly forgotten. These insistent phantoms cry out for fear their stories will dwindle and vanish into the post-Christian din of a present rushing past.
This then is the calling of the writer, the novelist—the playwright. To strive against the forgetfulness of the world. To proclaim a whisper in defiance of cacophony. To find the hidden nook, the lonely vale, the cobbled alley whose story is slipping toward mundanity and visit it with re-enchantment. For what is a writer if not an explorer who reminds the world of its own marvels? In the telling of our tales we give back to ghosts their voices, so they can speak to generations upon generations and remind them of the cloud of witnesses that have come before. We give back to the dead their testimonies, and they, in turn, they give them back to the ages.
Only by story does the world remember.
A few days later we left Haarlem and drove into Germany, my mind full of whispers. I have a story to tell. If I’m to tell it well, I must listen.