Little Willem ten Boom was virtually the opposite physically of his father—small, weak and cross-eyed, he could never have done the difficult gardening work of his father. By the time he was twelve, the family had moved to Haarlem, Willem had learned to read, write and do arithmetic (a significant intellectual achievement at the time) and was apprenticed to a watch repairman.
As Willem grew, he pursued his own education at every opportunity. Bright and hard-working, he was ready at 21, with 100 guilders of working capital gifted by his parents, to open his own shop. In 1837, on the bottom floor of a three-story building on Barteljorisstraat, Harlem, Willem open his watch-repair store that would remain open and house the ten Boom family for the next 100 years!
Business thrived, he was popular among the Haarlem citizens and within four years Willem was able to marry and move his bride into the rooms above his shop. The next fourteen years were among the most difficult of Willem’s life. His lovely wife Geertruide was a wonderful woman and devoted wife but she suffered from tuberculosis. Because she kept the children close to her after birth, the disease was easily transmitted causing Willem and Geertruide to lose 8 of their 13 children at birth or soon thereafter.
Willem wrote often to his younger sister, Cato, to whom he was very close. He expressed his deep sorrow at the passing of his children and the tremendous emotional ups and downs he struggled with. He often expressed his reliance on God, dependence on the will of God and his deep desire to be closer to the Lord.
Then after 14 years of trial and difficulty, Geertruide died. Two years later he married their young housekeeper. She was strong, energetic and an excellent housewife. She helped care for his surviving children and blessed him with more children, the first of which was Casper ten Boom. Finances remained precarious for some time but Willem had renewed hope with a healthy wife by his side who took good care of his children.
During this time in Holland there was a spiritual revival and the ten Booms were swept up in it. Willem became one of the founding board members of the Society for Christian Home Visitation and remained active until his death. He became an elder in the Reformed Church of Haarlem and was actively involved in many projects supporting the education of young people—for which Willem helped raise large sums of money.
Then, in the 1840’s, Willem learned of a man named Isaac Da Costa. He was a Portuguese Jew who was converted to Christianity and quickly wrote a book titled Objections Against the Spirit of This Age where he condemned the current Enlightenment movement away from belief in God. This book, and the speeches of Da Costa had a life-changing impact on Willem and his descendants.
Willem was moved by what Da Costa taught. He understood the responsibility placed upon Christians of reaching out to the Jewish community, building bridges of friendship and extending any aid possible. Da Costa’s work influenced Willem to become one of the founders of the Society for Israel. Casper ten Boom often told his children, “Love for the Jews was spoon-fed to me from my very youngest years.” The result was that deep respect and love was always present in the ten Boom home—from Willem, to Casper, to Corrie and the grandchildren—all knew and loved the Jewish people.
And so, because of Willem ten Boom’s love and humility, influenced by the pleadings of Isaac Da Costa, in 1844, in the upper floor of the family home (the Beje) on Barteljoristraat he began a prayer group for Israel. For the next 100 years, this family prayed daily for the Jewish nation. Until, exactly 100 years after these prayers began, in 1944, Willems son, four of his grandchildren and one great-grandchild were arrested in this same house where the prayers had begun because they had saved Jewish people from Hitler’s plans to kill them.
Corrie ten Boom said of this miraculous coincidence, “We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that He will get us involved in His plan for the answer. If we are true intercessors, we must be ready to take part in God’s work on behalf of the people for whom we pray.”