CCP 2016 Awards of Merit
Editorial – Circulation Under 10,000
(Judge: Mark Bourrie)
First Place: Christian Courier
The Lord’s Hand of Forgiveness
As told to Bert Witvoet
by Betty Vanderburg
Rev. Francois Guillaume was arrested after he had prayed for the well-being of Queen Wilhelmina during a church service in the Netherlands while it was under German occupation. Honouring the Dutch queen, who at that time was in exile in England, was considered a crime against the German Reich. One of his parishioners reported Guillaume to the German authorities, and, because by praying for his Queen he had become an enemy of Hitler’s Nazi empire, he was arrested and sent to Dachau, one of the worst concentration camps that Hitler’s henchman Herman Goebels had devised.
During his imprisonment, Guillaume suffered from a blood clot in one of his legs and was hospitalized for that. This ailment helped him avoid hard physical labour for a while. But even in the hospital his life was always in danger because every morning the patients had to quickly stand at attention for roll call. Whoever was the slowest in getting out of bed and standing at attention was removed from the hospital and taken away to the gas chamber. Guillaume made sure he got out of bed as quickly as possible. Because he had experience as a pastor, he figured out a way of making the guards less hostile to him. He always asked them how their wife and children were doing, and thus encouraged their human side to emerge, which was suppressed and compartmentalized during their work time in the camp.
Betty told me how various pastors and priests who were incarcerated in Dachau would agree to meet on Sunday evenings for worship near the fence, at the end ofthe camp field. They pretended to be looking at the stars and clouds. Since all Bibles had been confiscated, the pastors would take turns quoting passages they remembered from Scripture. One or two would comment on these passages, and they would take turns praying for each other and their families. For three years it never rained or snowed during that hour of worship. If it did rain or snow before, it would stop at the beginning of the hour and resume afterwards. God was clearly present in the concentration camp. This worship experience gave courage to the participants. It also helped Francois Guillaume become more ecumenical, so that later in life he could not understand how fellow Christians could fight over minor theological issues during and after the war, causing unfortunate schisms.
Sometimes Guillaume was allowed to write a letter to his wife, but he had to write in German so the guards could censor the letter for forbidden information. He was not allowed to write about himself, for example. So Francois would write about a non-existent uncle who lived in a town in which they had spent their honeymoon, and he asked his wife to ask this unknown uncle ifhe had enough food because he might not get enough to eat. Somehow Mrs. Guillaume figured out hat he meant that he himself did not have enough to eat so she would send him a care package. And when he said that the cake did not taste as good as before, she knew that he wanted her to hide pictures of the children in the cake.
After the war
By God’s help and his own cunning, Francois managed to stay alive until his camp was liberated in 1945. He returned from the concentration camp, hollowed out and emaciated. His health had been damaged for the rest of his life. He spent the first few weeks in a hospice, gradu ally eating more food so his body could adjust and regain strength. Gradually he was able to resume his pastoral task in his church.
A few years later, someone knocked on the door of the parsonage and told him that the man who had betrayed him was dying and had asked if Rev. Guillaume could visit him and forgive him. Francois, who until that time did not know who had betrayed him to the German authorities, did not want to go. All the pain and suffering he had endured during those horrible years at Dachau came flooding back into his mind. But the Lord told him he had to go. So he went, but he told the Lord that the Lord had better do the forgiving because he himself could not do it.
When Francois met the man who was on his deathbed, the man confessed and asked him for forgiveness. The man held out his hand to him. Francois took his hand and said, “I am offering you the Lord’s hand of forgiveness.” He said that because he could not bring himself to offer his own hand of forgiveness. As he did so, Francois felt the power of God flowing from his body, through his hand, to the dying man. And then he knew that he also could forgive the man for all the pain he had caused him and his family.
Betty was two years old when her father had been taken away in 1942. When he returned she was five. When she saw her father, who looked like a walking skeleton, she ran away from him. For Francois, this was a very hurtful experience. For years afterwards, the children were told by their mother to cut out the best part of their meat or sandwich and put it on their father’s plate.
Rev. Francois Guillaume died in 1972 of heart failure. His concentration camp experience had caught up with him. His wife had gotten up in the morning and had told him to stay in bed for a bit longer. She would make him a cup oftea. When she returned to give him his cup of tea, she noticed that he was gone. The Lord had stretched out his loving hand and had taken him home.
Betty and Herman Vanderburg, who live in Calgary, Alberta, paid Alice and myself a visit at our son John and Doreen Witvoet s home in Calgary on April 8, 2013. It was then that Betty told us about her father, Rev. Francois Guillaume. Both Alica and I had known rev. Guillaume during the 1960s when he was a pastor at Rehoboth CRC in Toronto, and knew about his concentration camp experience.