Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, Voice of the Martyrs

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The Romanian Reverend vs. the Beast of the Apocalypse

The most dramatic moment of testimony occurred when the witness stripped bare to the waist. Pointing to 18 deep scars on his neck, chest and back, 56-year-old Romanian minister Richard Wurmbrand, his suspenders hanging loosely behind him, his face streaked with anguish, told Chairman Thomas J. Dodd of Connecticut and the other members of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee looking into religious persecution by Communists, "My body represents Romania, my country, which has been tortured to a point that it can no longer weep. These marks on my body are my credentials."

Rev. Wurmbrand wasn't whistling Dixie. Two years earlier, in June 1964, he had emerged from more than 14 years captivity in the Romanian gulag, during which time Communist Party secret police tortured him insidiously: they wanted him to confess to the supposed political nature of his church-related activities, as well as to inform on men and women who had participated in clandestine religious ceremonies. He never cracked.

The Lutheran minister first disappeared on Feb. 29, 1948, snatched from a Bucharest street as he walked to his church. "A black Ford braked sharply beside me and two men jumped out, seized my arms and shoved me into the back seat, while a third, beside the driver, kept me covered with an automatic," Wurmbrand wrote in the opening paragraph of 1968's In God's Underground, an account of his harrowing prison existence.

Three years of preaching to a flock of Jews-turned-Christians like himself?as well as his attempts to reach the occupying Red Army by illegally publishing and distributing 100,000 Russian-language copies of the New Testament's gospels in Bucharest bars, cafes, train stations and parks?had exhausted the tolerance of Romanian commissars. Wurmbrand, they decided, needed to disappear.

His captors dumped him at Calea Rahova, a spanking new prison for dissidents, enemies of the people and criminals of various stripes. The warders there gave him a new identity (Vasile Georgescu), and set about erasing his old one. The 39-year-old Wurmbrand was 6 feet, 3 inches tall, with a medium build, and enjoyed relatively hale health before his abduction. But after being subjected to physical and psychological depredations and humiliations during his first year in the gulag, he nearly expired, kept just this side of living by the facility's doctors. Dead, of course, he would be incapable of divulging information.

In clear, straightforward, occasionally stomach-churning prose, Wurmbrand recounts his horrific tortures: sleep deprivation; starvation diet; made to race around his four-steps-by-two-steps cell for hours until he collapsed; beatings with truncheons and boots; water funneled down his throat until it filled his stomach, which was then violently kicked; the bastinado, a relic of the Spanish Inquisition in which the bare soles of the feet are flogged; guards urinating and spitting into his open mouth; drugged into delirium; terrorized by dogs kept inches from his throat; solitary confinement?speaking to no one except inquisitors?for nearly three years in a three-paces-by-three-paces cell, this one located 30 feet underground; tossed into the "carcer," a constricting, closet-sized enclosure with metal-spiked walls. In short, he experienced his own personal Passion.

"It was an image of hell," Wurmbrand reported, "in which the torment is eternal and you cannot die." He confessed to any false charges concerning himself?adultery, homosexuality?but steadfastly refused to implicate other believers, irrespective of denomination.

Transforming solitary confinement into his crucible, Wurmbrand affirmed his faith and tried to keep sane by mentally composing approximately 350 sermons and 300 devotional poems, which he later claimed to have memorized by employing condensed rhyme schemes and mnemonic devices. (He published 22 of the former in 1969's Sermons in Solitary Confinement.) Additionally, he "talked" with and "preached" to inmates in adjacent cells by tapping on the walls using Morse code, which the prisoners learned from each other; devised chess matches with himself, substituting bread crumbs for pieces; and held imaginary conversations with his wife Sabina and young son Mihai.

More than three years into his ordeal, Wurmbrand was hauled before a faceless quartet of judges for a 10-minute trial, found guilty of subversive activities and sentenced to 20 years' hard labor. Wracked by tuberculosis, he spent four years rotting in a prison TB ward in the Carpathian foothills. With no medicine, many died. While there he learned that his wife had been arrested in 1950 and pressed into slave labor digging and carting dirt for the Danube-Black Sea canal, a project eventually abandoned as infeasible. Held for three years, she ate grass when necessary.

A member of the secret police whom Wurmbrand had earlier converted to Christianity helped secure his release in June 1956, and he rejoined Sabina and Mihai in Bucharest, where he resumed preaching. "I knew, of course," he wrote, "that sooner or later I would be rearrested." In January 1959 he was reimprisoned during a renewed crackdown on the clergy, his old sentence?plus five years?reimposed. Plunged back into the black hole of the gulag, he endured extensive brainwashing designed to eradicate religious beliefs. Five and a half years later he walked away, his faith intact.

Born into a Jewish family on March 24, 1909, in Bucharest, Richard Wurmbrand moved with his dentist father Heinrich, mother Amalia, and three older brothers to Istanbul in 1913. They lived there until 1919, when his father perished during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, prompting his mother to return to Bucharest with her sons. Active in leftist and atheist circles and fluent in several languages, Wurmbrand first managed an import-export business, then worked as a stockbroker. In 1936 he married a writer, Sabina Oster, also Jewish. That same year Wurmbrand first contracted tuberculosis, and convalesced in a rural sanitarium; afterward, while vacationing briefly with Sabina in a mountain village, he met a German carpenter who pressed upon him a Bible.

The New Testament accounts of Christ's life profoundly affected him, and at the urging of Isaac Feinstein, a Jewish acquaintance who had converted to Christianity, Wurmbrand also became a Christian, followed almost immediately by his wife. Mihai was born in 1939, and to support his family Wurmbrand took a job as secretary to the head of the Anglican Christian Mission to Jews in Bucharest; that man was expelled when local fascists seized power after the German Army overran Romania in 1940.

Undeterred, Wurmbrand stepped into the void, preaching principally to other Jewish Christians on behalf of a Lutheran ministry, the Swedish Israel Mission. Simultaneously, at considerable personal risk he and Sabina rescued Jewish children from the city's ghetto. In fact, on three separate occasions the government arrested, interrogated, beat and briefly jailed Wurmbrand. Yet he survived. Others didn't: Sabina's parents and three of her siblings died in fascist pogroms against the Jews; fascists also killed Feinstein.

By summer 1944 the political situation had altered radically. Soviet troops pushed the Germans out of Romania, and local Communists gradually assumed control of the government. Wurmbrand, now an ordained Lutheran minister first with the Swedish Mission, then the Norwegian Mission?while also working surreptitiously for the World Council of Churches?turned his evangelical energies toward converting Russian soldiers. Though detained and questioned by the secret police several times, he remained free until Leap Day 1948, when that black Ford whisked him away to oblivion. Finally set free in June 1964 when the government declared a general amnesty for thousands of political and religious prisoners, Wurmbrand reunited again with his wife and son in Bucharest. "The world seemed so astonishing," he wrote, "almost frightening." He pastored a tiny congregation (35 members) under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Cults, which soon withdrew his license to preach and blacklisted him. Fearful that he might be arrested yet again, the Norwegian Lutheran Mission, in conjunction with British Hebrew-Christians, paid a $10,000 ransom to the Romanian government in 1965 to purchase the Wurmbrand's freedom. They flew first to Rome in early December, intending to proceed to Israel, but that plan was nixed when the Jewish Welfare Agency learned that Richard and Sabina were converted Jews.

Instead, they wound up in Oslo, where Wurmbrand began his obsessive ministry in the name of what he came to call the Underground Church, which comprised members of all Christians persecuted under Communist governments?regimes he referred to collectively as "the Beast of the Apocalypse." Throughout Europe and the United States, where he and his family eventually settled in 1966 (they became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1971), the pastor railed publicly against Communists' brutal treatment of Christians. And without soft-pedaling his rhetoric, he also assailed free-world church leaders, whom he accused of complacency, accommodation and gullibility regarding "easing of religious oppression" behind the Iron Curtain.

Church leaders, in turn, openly speculated on the legitimacy of Wurmbrand's ordainment back in Romania. (Indiana Christian University eased that crisis somewhat by awarding him a doctor of divinity degree in 1972.) As a result he operated well outside the ranks of mainstream Christian organizations, establishing Jesus to the Communist World, Inc., in Glendale, CA, in 1967 to address the needs of the international Underground Church. Wurmbrand served as president, and in 1990 the group officially changed its name to Voice of the Martyrs, Inc. With branches in 35 nations, VOM engages in a variety of missionary and relief activities, notably Bible smuggling.

Wurmbrand published nearly 20 books, among them 1967's bestselling Tortured for Christ, which like In God's Underground describes his years in captivity; 1975's pointed tract My Answer to the Moscow Atheists; and 1968's The Soviet Saints, a celebration of those subjected to Communist persecution. (Sabina related her personal saga in 1970's The Pastor's Wife.)

Inflamed by a borderline fanaticism, the reverend took his campaign everywhere he found willing listeners, including Congress, where in August 1967 he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As was the case during his 1966 testimony to the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, Wurmbrand asserted that agents of churches sanctioned by Communist governments had been sent to the U.S. to infiltrate the religious ranks of its former citizens. In what amounted to a one-man jihad, he traveled constantly to deliver fervid speeches and sermons, not for a second diminishing his antipathy toward Communists or his penchant for drama.

"I'll never forget the first time I heard him speak," a British witness to Wurmbrand's oratory told London's The Independent last month. "It was at the famous Tron Church in Glasgow. The place was packed with well-to-do Church of Scotland types. This gaunt man dressed in black robes made his way to the high pulpit and surveyed us all, looking pale and ill, like an Auschwitz survivor. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead a high-pitched scream of agony echoed round the church. Everyone went deathly silent. Leaning over the pulpit he whispered into the silence: 'You have just heard the authentic voice of the suffering church.'"

After Romanians toppled and murdered President Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day 1989, Richard, age 80, and Sabina, 76, returned to their homeland. Greeted as heroes, they preached, appeared on television and visited one of Wurmbrand's former cells, now used as a library for his many books. And yet even after the demise of Communism in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, Wurmbrand never lost the intestinal fire, continuing his mission with Voice of the Martyrs to point out Christian persecution in China and in nations controlled by Islamic fundamentalists. Finally, though, he retired in 1995, confined to bed after suffering several strokes, and incapacitated by increasing leg neuropathy contracted during his years in the gulag. He died, age 91, on Feb. 17 in Torrance, CA, from respiratory failure, outliving Sabina, 87, by seven months.

Wurmbrand's ordeals were tattooed onto his mind and body. In the preface to Sermons in Solitary Confinement, he wrote: "[W]hile I left the solitary cell the solitary cell has never left me. Not one day passes without my living in it... My real being has remained forever in solitary confinement. I don't so much live my present life, as relive continually those prison years. This is not because they are an essential part of my personal history but because I am not the real me. The real me is those who are in lonely, dreary, damp cells today... They are the little brothers of Jesus. They are the most precious part of the mystical body of Christ on earth. I am living their life when I relive my years of solitary confinement. It is a strange experience. It may lead to madness."

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