Persecuted from 1948 to 1964, in Romania
In 1936, Richard Wurmbrand married Sabina Oster. Two years later, they began following Jesus as the Messiah. Both had been raised in Jewish families, but thanks in part to the witness of a Christian carpenter named Christian Wölfkes, they joined the Anglican Mission to the Jews in their home city of Bucharest, Romania. Growing in spiritual maturity and passion, Richard was ordained in the Anglican Church. The couple quickly began a powerful ministry, one much needed during the horrors of World War II.
As a result of the nonaggression pact between Soviet and Nazi governments in 1939, Romania was pressured to join the Axis military campaign. German forces soon occupied the country, and Romania became the Third Reich’s main source of oil. Richard and Sabina saw the violence and displacement as an opportunity for ministry and evangelism. They rescued Jewish children from dangerous ghettos and preached to Romanians hiding in the bomb shelters.
The Romanian population grew discontented with their German occupiers. The nation’s King Michael led a coup d’état against Romania’s Axis government in August of 1944, and Romania aligned itself with the Allies. In May 1945 German forces were defeated, and in August Japan surrendered, ending the war.
The war had taken a great toll on the Wurmbrands. Richard and Sabina had been captured and beaten numerous times. Sabina’s entire family had been killed in Nazi concentration camps.
They distributed over a million copies of the Gospels to Russian soldiers, cleverly disguising the scriptures as communist propaganda.
After the war, the German occupation was replaced by the Soviet Army. Richard and Sabina continued their ministry to their fellow Romanians and to the occupying forces. They joined the Lutheran Church, where Richard was ordained as a minister. They distributed over a million copies of the four Gospels to Russian soldiers in Romania, cleverly disguising the scriptures as communist propaganda. They also smuggled copies into Russia, the heart of the Soviet Union.
The new Romanian communist government, seeking to consolidate loyalty and rein in people of faith, organized a “Congress of Cults.” The gathering was attended by various religious leaders, including the Wurmbrands. One by one, in impassioned speeches, these leaders swore loyalty to the government. They extolled the virtues of communism, despite its clear attempts to control and even suppress churches.
Richard and Sabina were disgusted by the actions of their fellow leaders. Sabina said, “Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ.” Richard replied, “If I do, you’ll lose your husband.” But Sabina said what Richard knew in his heart: “I don’t wish to have a coward as a husband.” Richard stood up in front of the four thousand delegates as so many had done before him. But instead of praising communism, he bravely declared that the church’s duty is to glorify God and Christ alone.
On February 29, 1948, on his way to a church service, Richard was seized by the secret police and locked away in solitary confinement. For three years, he was confined to an underground cell with no lights or windows, where absolute silence was preserved – itself a form of sensory deprivation torture. The guards did not speak within earshot, and they wore felt on their shoes so that Richard could not even hear their steps.
After his release, in a document preparing readers to serve in the underground church, Richard wrote:
We were drugged, we were beaten. I forgot my whole theology. I forgot the whole Bible. One day I observed that I had forgotten the “Our Father.” I could not say it anymore. I knew that it began with “Our Fathe…,” but I did not know the continuation. I just kept happy and said, “Our Father, I have forgotten the prayer, but you surely know it by heart.”…For a time my prayers were, “Jesus, I love you.” And then after a little time again, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you.” Then it became too difficult even to say this because we were doped.…The highest form of prayer that I know is the quiet beating of a heart which loves Him. Jesus should just hear “tick-a-tock, tick-a-tock,” and he will know that every heartbeat is for him.”
Richard did not consider this time of imprisonment wasted. He slept during the day and composed and delivered sermons each night. He even attempted to evangelize other inmates by tapping Morse code messages on the wall. He wrote, “Through this code you can preach the gospel to those who are to your right and left. The prisoners always change. Some are taken out from the cell and others are put in.”
Two years later, Sabina was also arrested. She later described that moment:
We had to dress in front of six men. They trampled over our things. From time to time they shouted out, as if to encourage each other to keep up the meaningless search: “So you won’t tell us where the arms are hidden! We’ll tear this place apart!”
I said, “The only weapon we have in this house is here.” I picked up the Bible from under their feet.
[One of the men] roared, “You’re coming with us to make a full statement about those arms!”
I laid the Bible on the table and said, “Please allow us a few moments to pray. Then I’ll go with you.”
Sabina was taken to work on the Danube Canal (a project which was never completed). Mihai, their nine-year-old son, was left homeless. Sabina spent three years working at penal labor. During this time she was frequently interrogated by her captors. She recounted:
They shouted and bullied. Questions, questions. Some I couldn’t answer. Some I wouldn’t. It was a long session and I became confused by the noise and blinding light. My head whirled. They said, “We have methods of making you talk which you won’t like. Don’t try to be clever with us. It wastes our time. It wastes your life.” The repetition and the insistence were maddening. My nerves were stretched to breaking point. It was hours before they sent me back to the cell.
Her cell offered little reprieve.
People learn what it means to be on this earth with nothing to do when they enter prison. Not to wash, or sew, or work. Women talked with longing about cooking and cleaning. How they would like to bake a cake for their children, then go round the house with a duster, and clean the windows, and scrub the tables. We had nothing even to look at. Time did not pass. It stood still.
Eventually Sabina was released, but she was greeted with the worst news imaginable. Secret police, posing as former prisoners, claimed to have attended Richard’s funeral in prison. Her husband, she was told, was dead.
But this was not true. Richard was being moved from prison to prison – from Craiova to Gherla, Văcăreşti, Malmaison, Cluj, and Jilava. He experienced extreme physical torture during this time. The guards beat the soles of his feet until the skin tore off, then again until they exposed bone.
After eight and a half years in prison, Richard was discovered by a Christian doctor pretending to be a Communist Party member, and was finally released in a general amnesty in 1956. Strictly warned not to preach, he went immediately back to his work in the underground church.
In 1959 he was arrested again after an associate conspired against him. He was accused of preaching against communist doctrine, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. As he embraced his wife before leaving her for the second time, she encouraged him to keep up their evangelistic work, saying, “Richard, remember that it is written, ‘You will be brought before rulers and kings to be a testimony unto them.’”
This time the psychological torture was even worse than physical pain. As Richard recorded it:
We had to sit seventeen hours with nothing to lean on, and you were not allowed to close your eyes. For seventeen hours a day we had to hear, “Communism is good, Communism is good, Communism is good, etc.; Christianity is dead, Christianity is dead, Christianity is dead, etc.; Give up, give up, etc.” You were bored after one minute of this but you had to hear it the whole seventeen hours for weeks, months, years even, without any interruption.
During Richard’s second imprisonment, Sabina was once again told that her husband had died. This time she did not believe it. In 1964, due to increased political pressure from Western countries, Richard was once again granted amnesty and released. Fearing that he would continue getting himself arrested, the Norwegian Mission to the Jews and the Hebrew Christian Alliance negotiated with Romanian authorities to release Richard and Sabina from the country for $10,000. Although at first he refused to leave his home country, Richard was later convinced by fellow leaders of the underground church to become a voice in the West for the persecuted church.
In 1966 Richard testified before the US Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee. During his testimony, he pulled off his shirt to reveal eighteen deep scars from the torture he had experienced in the communist prisons. “My body represents Romania, my country, which has been tortured to a point that it can no longer weep,” he told the subcommittee. “These marks on my body are my credentials.”
In April 1967, Richard and Sabina formed an interdenominational organization to support the persecuted church in communist countries. They called it Jesus to the Communist World. But as they expanded their mission to include persecuted Christians in other parts of the world, including Muslim countries, the organization was renamed The Voice of the Martyrs. Because of his influential work, Richard became known as “The Voice of the Underground Church.”
In 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Wurmbrands finally returned to Romania. They had spent twenty-five years in exile from their homeland. The Voice of the Martyrs opened a printing facility and bookstore in Bucharest. The new mayor of the city offered a storage space for their books: under the palace of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, where Richard had been held in solitary confinement for three years.
Though Richard retired from his work with The Voice of the Martyrs in 1992, he and Sabina continued to support the organization and the world’s underground churches. Sabina died in 2000 and Richard in 2001.
Drawn from three of Richard Wurmbrand’s books: In God’s Underground (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Books, 1968), Tortured for Christ (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Books, 1967) and If Prison Walls Could Speak (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Books, 1972).