A month from now, I’ll turn 42 years old. I will be sixteen years older than my mother was when she gave birth to me. If you saw a picture of her from that time, you’d think she was on-set at MGM or Universal as the female lead; a beauty of the highest order. Over the next couple of decades, she worked and sacrificed to provide me with opportunities. She is the greatest woman I’ll ever know. Today’s story tells of a different woman; one of the strongest in history. Afterward, I’ll discuss how it relates to you, your fitness and hopefully; your life.
April 15 is tattooed on our calendars in a bittersweet fashion. It’s another day under the glorious sun, but it’s also a grim day; tax-day. If you celebrate a birthday, you’re in good company. General Electric was born and so was the subject of today: Cornelia ten Boom. For the remainder of the story, I will refer to her by her more common name; Corrie. Born in the Netherlands, Corrie grew up helping her father in his watchmaking shop, learning the trade and spending time helping those in need in her community. Corrie and her family provided food, money and other services to those less fortunate. Corrie soon became to the first woman watchmaker in Holland. When she wasn’t making timepieces, she worked with local teen girls, holding Bible Study, teaching sewing and performing arts.
It’s May 1940. The ground quakes, the sky darkens; lightning-war engulfs the Netherlands; the German Blitzkrieg. Nazi Imperialism is on the rise and coils itself around Europe’s throat. In a boardroom, filled with cigarette smoke and pastries; the unthinkable happens. A plan is made, bone-chilling and vile. It is rivaled in terror only by the cold, calm demeanor of its designers. This plan, this evil “Final Solution” would change history and the ten Booms, forever. Corrie’s family could not, and would not sit indifferently to what was happening in their community. Her experience as a watchmaker now told her what time it was. It was time to act, at great risk to herself and everyone she loved.
Walk-in closets were uncommon at the time; a luxury. In Corrie’s bedroom, behind a hollow wall, was a space no larger than a humble wardrobe closet. This space would not be used to hold dresses, hats or shoes; but people. It could hold 6 people at a time; Jews, intellectuals, students, and any other citizen considered an undesirable by the Third Reich. When the predators would go door-to-door, a buzzer alerted them to hide, be silent, and try to survive. They had less than sixty seconds, the length of two television commercials. Soon, a network of “safe houses” was organized; the Dutch Resistance, moving people away from the SS and towards freedom.
At the end of February 1944, Corrie’s family was betrayed; a Judas. Someone in the community, familiar with what was happening, leaked to the Germans. Once the Nazis caught wind, it was a matter of time before they lay siege to the home. 35 people, including the entire ten Boom family, were arrested. The six people huddled together in the Hiding Place, avoided persecution. Other members of the Safe House network rescued them and led them to safety. Corrie’s father, in his 80s, died shortly thereafter.
90 kilometers north of Berlin lay Ravensbruck, a concentration camp consisting only of Women; 130,000 of them, with two new tenants: Corrie and her sister Betsie. In the wake of punishment of one crime, Corrie would commit another. She snuck into the camp, a Dutch Bible. Each night, in a sound no louder than a whisper, Corrie and Betsie read the story of the Israelites, the Gospel of Jesus and sang Hymns to the condemned women of Ravensbruck. A verse was read, translated into a different language by another woman, then another and another until the passage could be understood by all the women in the barracks. Infested with fleas, their bodies deteriorating from starvation, their lives in the hands of the Devil’s henchmen, they clung to the words for nourishment. Nobody knew how much time remained on their clocks, but Corrie saw to it that each one was loved and comforted, until the last moment.
In early 1945, a clerical mistake (and some say a miracle) led to Corrie gaining her freedom. Tragedy struck one week later; all the women in her age group at Ravensbruck were executed. While she breathed, there was still time for strength. She returned home to the Netherlands and built a rehabilitation center for Holocaust Survivors. This included the shunned and disgraced Dutch citizens who collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation. Her strength rivaled that of Hercules. It would soon face an ultimate test.
At 53 years-old, she returned to Germany and spoke at a local church. Whenever she spoke in Germany, there were never any questions. People would gather their belongings and leave. This time, there was a question. After her sermon, she was approached by a familiar face. She did not know his name, but his face struck her soul like a lightning bolt hurled by Zeus himself. His face was horrifying. His face was Death. Once again she could feel the claustrophobia of hundreds of women squeezing together. She could hear the shouting, the cries, and gunshots. He was a guard at Ravensbruck. Ashamed and broken, he extended his hand and asked her to forgive him. Her arm, frozen by her side, had to feel like the heaviest object in the world. In one of the greatest demonstrations of strength imaginable, she lifted her arm and touched his.
“I forgive you, brother.” She wept.
In 1983, after 91 years of strength and saving over 800 people, Corrie ten Boom’s time expired. She died in Placentia, CA. It was April 15; her birthday.
Take this moment to blow your nose and dry your eyes. I admit, maintaining my composure while writing this material was futile. The pressing question is, “How does this relate to my small world of health and fitness?” There are no shortages of takeaways from the life of Corrie ten Boom. But the title of this piece gives away the answer; Strength.
The telos of Fitness is Strength. Most of us have goals that are cosmetic in nature, which I don’t discourage but warn against its excesses. We can easily become seduced by beautiful images on social media or in magazines. The noble goal of looking better and improving your body can be eclipsed by an obsession with perfection. The ends justify the means, and those means often come at the expense of Strength. Refusing to eat, judging yourself harshly for indulging or performing excessive exercise are not examples of Strength. They are violations of it. When strength erodes, fragility takes its place. The structure becomes unstable and unable to withstand the slightest pressure.
Strength is lifting heavier weights. Strength is knowing when you’ve had enough at the dinner table. Strength is knowing when to indulge and not raining insults upon yourself for having done so. Strength is not comparing yourself to others. Strength is viewing your body as a gift, not a source of misery or wishing you had someone else’s. Strength is putting others first but also knowing that you cannot give what you do not have. Therefore, strength is knowing that you must take time for yourself. Strength is forgiving others for things they’ve said that made you doubt yourself, think less of your value or caused you great pain. This may require the greatest of all strength. If it was truly impossible, it could have never been done, or ever will be done. Corrie ten Boom, lifting her arm, touching the Nazi guard’s hand and forgiving him, proved that it is, indeed, possible.
Lady Justice can be seen outside courts around the world, blindfolded, holding scales. Lady Strength is also blindfolded, accessible to all, regardless of race, gender, physical ability or status. In her hands, there is no scale. It is only her, standing statuesque, making masculinity more masculine, femininity more feminine, making the immature; wise, making followers into leaders, making heavy burdens lighter to bear, and making the impossible; possible.