Tortured for Christ

IT WAS AUGUST 1969. I was standing with the crowd in the international arrivals hall at Sydney Airport, along with two other representatives from Ambassadors for Christ International (AFCI). The sliding door opened at intervals; a trickle of passengers arriving in Australia made their way into the terminal.

The door opened, and a figure stood gazing into the crowd. We had seen pictures of our guest—6 feet 3 inches and always in a dark suit, clerical collar, and homburg hat. That was what we saw appearing through the door: suit, collar, and hat, with a dark overcoat against the winter chill of August in Sydney. There was no mistake. We knew in an instant that this was Richard Wurmbrand. 

a startling testimony

About a year earlier, the board of AFCI had read Wurmbrand’s best-selling book, Tortured for Christ (1967). One of my coworkers wrote on the flyleaf, “This book changed the course of my life”—a response repeated by others around the world. Its startling testimony so impressed AFCI that we felt compelled to invite Wurmbrand to Australia to talk about the persecuted, martyred church behind the Iron Curtain. Wurmbrand became my friend and coworker from that meeting until his death on February 17, 2001. 

Who was this man, and what was his message? Richard Wurmbrand, the youngest of a poor Romanian Jewish dentist’s four sons, was born in Bucharest on March 24, 1909. When he was nine years old, his father died. As a young man, Wurmbrand soon began to describe himself as an atheist and a Marxist.

Wurmbrand grew up before and during the hardships of World War I. At times he stole to eat. Bright, with an education gained mostly from his father’s books, he became a sharp young businessman, making money in whatever way was possible.

On October 26, 1936, he married Sabina Oster, from a Jewish family in Czernowitz (in an area that became a part of Romania after WWI). Together they lived a life of pleasure. However, their life was not really satisfying; in Wurmbrand’s later words: “I despised others and I hated myself.”

Soon the young Wurmbrand was found to be suffering from tuberculosis brought on by his destructive behavior. When Richard and Sabina took their doctor’s advice and sought refuge in a mountain village, they had no idea what lay in store. 

face-to-face with christ

In the village that Wurmbrand chose for his rest and recuperation lived an old German carpenter, Christian Wolfkes, and his wife. Wolfkes’s heart’s desire, above all else, was to win a Jew to Christ. As it was not possible for him to leave the mountain to find a Jew, he prayed that God would bring a Jew to him. Soon the Wurmbrands arrived in the village.

Wolfkes and his wife prayed for Richard and Sabina and showered love and kindness on them. Wolfkes gave Wurmbrand a New Testament. Richard, an avid reader of other books, began to read the Bible—almost unwillingly at first. In the pages of the New Testament, he came face-to-face with Jesus Christ. So did Sabina. 

Soon after this the Second World War broke out, and it was not long before the Wurmbrands learned what it meant to suffer for the sake of Christ. During the Nazi reign of terror, they were repeatedly arrested and beaten as they sought to remain true to their new-found faith. The whole of Sabina’s Jewish family perished in the Holocaust. Their six adopted children were sent by ship to a place of safety, but were lost when the ship disappeared.

But their sorrows were only beginning. A million Russian soldiers occupied Romania in 1944—before World War II even ended—and the country became a part of the Eastern Europe Communist bloc. A new tyranny was imposed, creating conditions hostile to Christian worship. 

Soon the Wurmbrands and others took to secret meetings arranged by code to worship in safety. What would one day be known as the “underground church” was getting its footing, although Wurmbrand did not use the term at the time. (He found it in use when he arrived in the West later and began to use it, though he preferred “persecuted church” or “martyr church”—defined as a part of the body of Christ remaining faithful in the face of pressures placed on it by atheist governments and officials.) 

In 1945 the new government organized a “Congress of Cults,” a meeting where all religious leaders would be expected to openly support the atheistic government and its aims. Intent on controlling every facet of life in Romania, including churches and pastors, the government invited the Wurmbrands and other church leaders to attend. One by one, other leaders, including some Christians, spoke out in support of the Communists.

By this time Wurmbrand had become a well-known Romanian author and religious leader—first as an Anglican and then as a Lutheran minister. He lectured on the Old Testament at the Bucharest Baptist Seminary and was a representative to the World Council of Churches. 

Sabina turned to Richard and told him that when he had the opportunity to speak, he should “wipe the shame from the face of Jesus.” Understanding the consequences of such an act, Richard told Sabina that if he were to do so, she would likely lose her husband. Sabina replied, “I don’t need a coward for a husband.”

When Wurmbrand stepped forward to speak at the congress, there was a hush as everyone anticipated his endorsement of the new government. Into the electrifying silence fell Wurmbrand’s proclamation to 4,000 delegates that their duty as Christians was to glorify God and Christ alone. He was hustled from the podium and from that moment became a marked man. As he continued his ministry, the government watched him. 

ceasing to exist

On the morning of February 29, 1948, as Wurmbrand walked to church to prepare for the morning service, a secret police van pulled up beside him. Two men pushed him into the van, which quickly drove away. Thrown into prison Wurmbrand ceased to exist as though he had disappeared from the face of the earth. His name was registered as Vasile Georgescu, and he was forbidden to pronounce his real name, even when speaking to the guards. When foreign ambassadors or family members inquired about him, “Wurmbrand” did not appear on any list. 

Richard Wurmbrand endured two terms of prison totaling 14 years. Sabina continued their underground church work, but was also incarcerated for three years in Romania’s terrible labor camps. Wurmbrand became so ill in prison that he was put into what was called the “dying room,” where guards sent prisoners who were expected to live no longer than a few days. Wurmbrand survived for more than two years before being released from the dying room. During that time he ministered to many people before their deaths.

Finally, in 1965, friends ransomed the now-freed Wurmbrand family from Romania. The Communists were selling prisoners to the West, most for about $2,000. The price on the Wurmbrands’ heads? $10,000. On a cold Christmas Eve,  Sabina, Richard, and their surviving son Michael arrived at the airport in Oslo, Norway. A few faithful friends met the freed family.

Out of these experiences, the Wurmbrands in 1967 founded a ministry called Jesus to the Communist World, which would spread worldwide and come to be known as The Voice of the Martyrs. Its mission was to ask Christians everywhere to rise up and support their brothers and sisters facing terrible persecution under many anti-God regimes.

In Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand wrote, “The tortures and brutality continued without interruption. In the ensuing years, in several different prisons, they broke four vertebrae in my back, and many other bones. They carved me in a dozen places. They burned and cut 18 holes in my body.

“Doctors in Oslo, seeing all this and the scars of the lung tuberculosis which I also had, declared that my being alive today is a pure miracle! According to their medical books, I should have been dead for years. I know myself it is a miracle. 

God is a God of miracles. I believe God performed this wonder so that you could hear my voice crying out on behalf of the underground church behind the Iron Curtain. He allowed me to come out alive and cry aloud the message from your suffering, faithful brethren.” CH

By Merv Knight

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #109 in 2014]

Merv Knight is the cofounder of The Voice of the Martyrs—Australia.
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