The story of one humble Dutch family has long riveted American evangelicals. Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, simple Christian watchmakers living with their father in the Netherlands, risked everything to protect their Jewish neighbors from the Holocaust. And they endured unspeakable evil at the hands of the Nazis with faith, hope, and Scripture, always testifying to the goodness of God and the power of forgiveness.
More than 50 years after the ten Booms’ story first reached American audiences with the publication of The Hiding Place, audiences packed a Nashville theater to see it retold on stage. Next week, the Rabbit Room’s theatrical production of The Hiding Place is coming to cinemas across the US, with two special showings in more than 800 locations on August 3 and 5.
CT caught up with playwright A. S. “Pete” Peterson to ask him about the challenge of adaptation, the problems with portraying Nazis, his incarnational understanding of theater, and the compelling, convicting mystery that’s at the heart of the ten Booms’ testimony.
Why do you think Corrie ten Boom’s story still grabs us? What it is about The Hiding Place that’s so compelling?
Corrie ten Boom and her family are part of our cloud of witnesses. They have stood in a place where we cannot and they testify to something we cannot understand. That gives me, I think, the opportunity to believe in the absence of evidence that I can see myself.
There’s a mystery at the heart of the story that’s almost impossible to define. The sense that the ten Booms had of the sovereignty of God and their ability to be grateful in the worst circumstances essentially do not make sense. But I don’t mean that they’re crazy. I mean they understood something mystical, something powerful, something important for us all to wrestle with. It’s convicting. It’s compelling. But I think it’s also mysterious.
Why did you want to retell the story?
I didn’t have any experience with The Hiding Place before this. When I was called and offered the opportunity to adapt it, I said, “Let me go read the book.” I immediately saw how important the story is. They’re wrestling with the biggest possible questions.
For those who don’t know, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom lived in the 1940s; they hid Jews in their home in the Netherlands during the Holocaust. They were caught and sent to a concentration camp. Betsie dies there. Corrie comes back and spends the rest of her life testifying to the way her faith helped her in that terrible situation.
But the book is a bit out of date in the sense that it’s written to a different generation. I thought this is an opportunity to give this to our current generation. I think we have to find new ways to tell stories. I really wanted to honor the significance of the ten Booms’ testimony.
How did your perception of the story change? Did you come to understand some aspects differently through the work of adapting it for the stage?
Yeah. A lot of people think it’s Corrie’s story, that she’s the hero of the book. I would argue Betsie ten Boom is the hero of this book.
It’s Corrie’s testament to Christ and written to honor her sister. She had seen her sister become a kind of saint. The only way to talk about it is as a saint, a capital C Christian of the church. Betsie in the story is just an otherworldly character who walks into a death camp and starts thanking God for fleas and thanking God for her own nakedness. It’s kind of shocking. If you’re not careful, she really comes across as a loon.
We had to really figure out how to portray Betsie as a grounded human who comes to some extraordinary conclusions. We had to work really hard to portray Betsie in a way that woos the audience into her perspective on the world.
Can I ask you about the Nazis? Did you wrestle with how to frame them, how to portray what Nazis are?
Man, it’s complicated. Just to start, in the book there are multiple Nazis that we decided during adaptation to tie into one character so that the audience would be able to relate to the arc of the Nazi experience. You lose some things. Like the Nazi who interrogates Corrie was actually more sympathetic to her and helped her in a number of ways, but that didn’t work dramatically. As you’re assimilating characters, you have to think, These are real people, with real family trauma, and real family trees.
On a more philosophical level, one of the first things I did was jump on a plane and visit the ten Boom house in Haarlem, in the Netherlands, and then drove across Germany to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Corrie and Betsie were. I needed to experience that before I could write anything.
A concentration camp is like the negative of the Grand Canyon, if that makes sense. You see pictures your whole life, but then when you go you stand on the rim of it, you can’t imagine how much bigger it is than you ever imagined. At Ravensbrück, standing in the gas chambers, standing in front of the oven, it’s so much deeper and darker and wider than you ever imagined. It’s impossible to portray the enormity of true evil.
I was surprised that the Nazis in the play—the two who really speak—are atheists. They’re antagonistic to Christianity in general. But historically, 95 percent of Germans were Christians. The churches very much adapted to and accepted Nazism, which the churches in Germany today work very hard to remember and repent of. They will tell you, “We were part of something evil.” Why present the Nazis in the play as people who didn’t share the same faith as Corrie and Betsie ten Boom?
It’s something we wrestled with. Ultimately, where I landed was, I was wanting the show at a meta level to be a work of theodicy—Corrie trying to think about how does God permit evil—and that needed an antagonist. It was helpful to have a Nazi be that antagonist.
The other thing is that, in her book, the Nazis that she encountered were very hostile to Christianity. Nazis came in and saw her reading the Bible and said, “Why are you reading this trash?” In her experience, she encountered Nazis who were antagonistic, and I don’t know that I can explain that, because you’re right about the history. But that was her experience.
Yeah, but only about 1.5 percent of people were atheists. The top Nazis and top Christian leaders were promoting a kind of heroic Christianity, purged of Judaism and “Jewish influences,” so Christianity was more about winning and less about, you know, the scandal of the Cross. It really changes things to portray her enemy as atheists.
It’s an interesting question. But the reality is, as Corrie portrays them in the book, she did have multiple encounters with people who were specifically anti-Christian and atheistic. And it was helpful dramatically.
You’ve written novels before. How different is theater? What are the biggest challenges of adaptation?
On the surface level, when you write a book and release day comes around, you sit in your room to deafening silence and hope somebody’s reading it. When you write a play, you go to opening night, and even if people didn’t like it, they stand up and clap.
The form of the novel is inherently interior. The novel’s greatest strength is it reveals the internal life of a character. Theater is inherently three-dimensional and, I would say, incarnational. I create something as a writer that is unfinished. It cannot be experienced as it is meant to be experienced until other people incarnate it in three dimensions on the stage and make it its full self.
That’s also a fascinating theological thought to me. You could almost think of the law as theater, the law as something that God gave to Moses that we couldn’t understand fully until the Incarnation showed up.
It’s also beautiful to me that it’s a communal art form. When I write a book, it’s all on me. In theater, I write the best thing I can, but then you get into rehearsals and there are 30 or 40 people bringing their art to bear. And that’s always better than I could have done on my own.
What did you see in the play, in the process of rehearsals, that wasn’t just your intention but something coming to life through the collaboration or incarnation of the play?
There’s a moment at the end of the show where Corrie is offered an opportunity to offer forgiveness. The way that I had written was pretty matter of fact. Corrie is pretty matter of fact in the book. But as we rehearsed it, we really saw how delicate that scene needed to be. If it’s easy to forgive, we’re minimizing the evils of the Nazi regime. But if we make it too hard, that doesn’t work either.
The process was, we did a couple of readings of it back in 2018 down in Houston. Then we did developmental workshops. That’s where everybody says what’s wrong with it and I try and keep my mouth shut and then go back and fix it. Then we did, I think, four weeks of performance in Houston. Then COVID got in the way, and I spent most of the pandemic reworking the play. When it came to the stage in Nashville, that was another version.
That scene, the way it ultimately worked out, you can see the struggle on Corrie’s face. When you get the actors involved, actors are incredibly emotionally intuitive people. They teased all sorts of nuance out that I had not seen, and it was beautiful.
It didn’t change how it was written on the pages. But it changed the way the scene breathes and is enfleshed before the audience.
What’s next? Do you have another play you’re working on now?
We are in active development for my adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I’m really interested in digging into the theological aspects. The story is fundamentally theological, but most adaptations downplay that part. But the theology is remarkable. Dickens knew his theology. Like, he named the main character Ebenezer for a reason—“Hither by thy help I’ve come,” you know? So I’m excited to share that with people soon.