Doru Pop, “Our suffering as a testimony for future generations”, Caietele Echinox, vol. 15, 2008, pp. 115-121.
In 2006 the national television channel Romania 1 (TVR 1) launched a campaign among its viewers to nominate a person – one born in, or who has lived in Romania and that made a seminal contribution to the development of this country. Among the top ten nominees, there were former kings, political and military leaders and a surprise nomination. The pastor Richard Wurmbrand, got 46.973 votes, out of the 363.846 telephone votes, and thus ranked the fifth in the “Top 10 Romanians” rankings. And in the same TOP 100 of „most famous Romanians”, Nicolae Steinhardt, writer and Orthodox monk, occupied the 86th place.
Many of the survivors and victims of the Romanian Gulag featured in this Top 100, among them, philosophers and writers (Constantin Noica, Petre Ţutea), peasants (Elisabeta Rizea), politicians (Corneliu Coposu, Iuliu Maniu), and other figures of the cloth (Iuliu Hosu, Alexandru Todea). But with Wurmbrand and Steinhardt the situation was somehow different. Although their appearance on the short list of the top 100 famous Romanians has no sociological relevance, the fact that two Romanians of Jewish origin, two atheists converted to Christianity and survivors of the Communist prisons made it into the collective imaginary as „positive contributors”, raises several questions and yields itself to an opportunity to draw a comparison between the two and allows the discussion of their intellectual and cultural heritage in Romanian literature.
„My blood is Jewish, but as for feeling and thinking, I think and feel in Romanian” (N. Steinhardt)
One major problem is raised by the common cultural background that Richard Wurmbrand and Nicolae Steinhardt (Nicu-Aurelian Steinhardt) shared as young men. This in turn relates to a question debated intensely in Romania before the War War II, engendered by the publication of Mihail Sebastian’s novel Since Two Thousand Years (De două mii de ani, republished 1995) during the nineteen thirties. A key dispute gravitated around the „Introduction” to the novel, signed by Nae Ionescu. What is the essence of the so-called „Romanian national identity” with respect to how a Romanian of Jewish origin (or for that matter any foreign national) can define the limits of his ethnicity with respect to „national” identity? Nae Ionescu, one of the spiritual leaders of the right wing intelligentsia at the time, gave a negative and restrictive answer to the question, one rooted in the Nazi Arian propaganda.
The question was addressed later by Nicolae Steinhardt in The Diary of Happiness (Jurnalul Fericirii): „Nae Ionescu claims that whoever has no Romanian blood can act as a „good Romanian”, but cannot under any circumstances, become „Romanian”. As so this is, if we consider only the measure of human capabilities. But that which is not possible for men is only possible for God. On a humanly level, one cannot make the leap from the quality of
„good Romanian to the state of being „Romanian”. What about the baptism of blood, as it was for my cousin Theodor in Mărăşeşti? What about by means of transfiguration (…) biologically and ethnically, yes. Mystically, these problems are addressed in a totally different way” (The Diary of Happiness, p. 17).
This is something that brings Steinhardt and Wurmbrand together: they were not only „good Romanians”, but they proved to be „Romanians” in the deepest and most tragic of ways. The consequence of being „Romanian”, as was the case of Steinhardt and Wurmbrand, had dreadful side effects – very well documented in their journals remembering the detention period. This meant psychic and physical torture, lack of basic civil rights and moral degradation, constant threat and violence.
Still, both Wurmbrand and Steinhardt embraced and praised the Romanian ethos, and this love for Romania and the Romanian identity is common for both writers. Wurmbrand expresses this in an explicitly and dramatic manifestation: „It is dear to me the bonding with all the brothers and sisters from all countries and confession, but my heart never ceased to yearn for my native country, Romania, the country where I was born the second time. (…) After so much time, here we were at last in Romania. Overwhelmed by emotion, I kissed the ground.” (From Suffering…). Steinhardt finds an even more profound signification, one of theological relevance:
„The Romanian people has a power for transfiguration that allows the changing of the entire universe and to enter the liturgic cosmos… Like Christianity, Romanianism can abolish the apparently irreparable consequences of a tragedy, giving them unexpected values” (The Diary…, p. 349).
After the decree number 169, signed in 1938, almost 80 percent of the Jewish population in Romania lost its permanent citizenship rights (it has to be underlined that the decree was signed by a Romanian writer and intellectual, Octavian Goga, at that time prime minister), and over 600 thousands Jews were defined as „foreign residents”. This law was followed by dozens of other laws and decrees, all inspired by the Nazi Nuremberg laws, and all anti-Semitic (The Tragedy of Romanian Jewry). In his „Autobiography”, Steinhardt bears witness to this double tragedy: a „second grade Jew” during World War II he watched others deported and he himself was subjected to humiliating forced labors.
In this context, being intellectuals of Jewish origin, writing and manifesting in a culture of anti-Semitism – like Romania during the 30′s – people like Steinhardt and Wurmbrand were threatened by physical extinction. There are no official records, but between 280.000-380.000 Jews were killed in Romania, and entire communities were decimated, including the families of Wurmbrand and Steinhardt (the family of Sabina Wurmbrand was deported in Transnistria and none returned (cf. In God’s Underground, Cu Dumnezeu în subterană, p. 22). According to the Final Report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Final Report…, November 2004), extermination, anti-Semitic actions and general violence against Jews in Romania were widespread. So it can be said that Steinhardt and Wurmbrand were victims of the Gulag and the Holocaust at the same time. Still, Steinhardt remained a „Renaissance Jew, who obstinately wanted to be Romanian. And Christian!” (Quote from Teşu Solomonovici). And Wurmbrand’s work in the building of the Romanian Church after 1990 proved its deep impact.
The paradox of the survivor: What both Steinhardt and Wurmbrand provided the post communist Romanian literature and culture was their somewhat paradoxical inheritance. This is similar to the concept suggested by Sorin Alexandrescu in The Romanian Paradox (Paradoxul român), of a cultural sphere were contradictions coexisted – sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. The first paradox we can identify in our two authors is the ability mixing several different identities. Richard Wurmbrand was an Evangelical Minister, the youngest son of a Jewish dentist converted to Christianity, a Communist illegalist turned into preacher for the Red Army soldiers. There is this common legacy of the two men, which goes beyond their Christian missionary writing. Richard Wurmbrand studied Marxism in Moscow as a young illegalist, and was imprisoned in Doftana by the Siguranţa Statului. Nicolae Steinhardt sympathized with socialism, until one of his friends provided an insight about left wing totalitarianism. Later they both witnessed the atrocities of the totalitarian system.
But during their imprisonment they showed the force of this paradoxical ethos, the moral character of being able to stop perceiving differences. Wurmbrand’s ministry to the Red Army soldiers continued in prison, where he spread his belief in Christ even to the former leaders of the Communist Party (as was the case with Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, imprisoned in the same cell with Wurmbrand for several weeks). The passage of Wurmbrand (and Steinhardt) through the communist penal system, from Gherla to the Black Sea Canal and Jilava, was a long journey of spreading Christian faith, by words and, especially, by actions.
This generated a form of ecumenism of pain where „Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons,, Jews, Christian Jews, Reformed Christians, Orthodox, Catholics, Evangelicals, Greek-Catholics, Unitarians, and representatives of some smaller denominations, laypersons and monks, at the second floor of the old wing of the prison at Gherla, were living in a single cell. There was no better opportunity than this (for ecumenism)” (according to Ferenc Visky, 70 stories…). The same ecumenism is mentioned by Steinhardt. „I received the baptism in Jilava, from an orthodox monk, but also under the sign of ecumenism. I choose Orthodoxy by free will (because in the cell there were Catholics and Protestants and Neo Protestants) and by total acknowledgement, because it is dear to me and I am convinced I will remain faithful to this belief to the end. (A letter to Victor Rusu, quoted in Ziua, nr. 3840, 27 Ian. 2007). And ecumenism again pervades the writings of Wurmbrand: „I am a Protestant, but we have had near us Catholic bishops and monks and nuns about whom we felt that the touching of their garments heals.” (In God’s…).
In the end, Steinhardt finds this paradox in the very nature of Christianity (from The God that You Say You Don’t Believe In, pp. 100-105).
„Christianity is hard because its bases are paradoxical and absurd. The teachings of Christ are surprising and unexpected. What every Christian is expected to do is very similar to what the trapezes stuntman is required: a dangerous balance at a staggering height, without a net…”
Written testimonials against Communism: Wurmbrand and Steinhardt were Christians convicted for their beliefs, their Jewish identity was used against them, they were condemned to torture and death, still they survived and they were able to give us a legacy of their survivor. And the first and perhaps the most important heritage they left were their literary testimonials of the Communist Gulag in Romania.
From the very beginning of the freedom of publishing, immediately after the political changes in Romania after 1989, there was a subsequent and substantial publication of the literary works of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand and Nicolae Steinhardt. Although Wurmbrand’s first books were published in English – ”Sermons in Solitary Confinement” (Predici din celula singuratică), ”If Prison Walls Could Speak” (Dacă zidurile ar putea vorbi) and ”Alone with God” (Singur cu Dumnezeu), his books were only later brought to Romania. So Wurmbrand’s fertile works continued to be printed, two dozens of books (among them Îmbătat de dragoste, De la suferinţă la biruinţă, Strigătul bisericii prigonite, 100 de meditaţii din închisoare, Adu-ţi aminte de fraţii tăi, Oracolele lui Dumnezeu, Mai mult decât biruitori, Avraam tatăl tuturor credincioşilor, Cele 7 cuvinte de pe cruce, Christos pe uliţa evreiască, Umpleţi vidul, Dovezi ale existenţei lui Dumnezeu, Marx şi Satan, Isus prietenul teroriştilor, Drumul spre culmi), were soon to be translated in Romanian and widely transmitted in the laic and Christian libraries.
This was also the case of Nicolae Steinhardt’s Jurnalul Fericirii (The Diary of Happiness) which was one of the best-sellers in the bookshelves of Romanian libraries during the 90′s, hundred of thousand of copies, in several editions, were published. The Diary of Happiness was said to be the most read book in Romania of that day, in 2006 Dacia editing house in Cluj announced that 300.000 copies were sold since 1990. During that time, more than twenty books signed by Nicolae Steinhardt were published, by several editing houses in Romania. In the end this caused a copyright lawsuit, between some editing houses, editors who more or less openly published Steinhardt’s works and the monastery of Rohia, all claiming rights to the writings of the deceased author.
But soon enough they were famous figures of post communist public debate in Romania. Nicolae Steinhardt, „the monk from Rohia”, was proposed for canonization, and his face appeared even on painted icons, designed in high school contests. After his death in March 1989, Steinhardt remained a symbol of the Orthodox Church, a cultural figurehead recognized both by the intelligentsia and the other denominations. When Pope John Paul II came to Bucharest he mentioned, amongst „the many witnesses of Christ that flourished on Romanian land I wish to remember the monk from Rohia, Nicu Steinhardt, exceptional believer figure and man of culture who perceived in a special way the immense wealth common to Christian Church.” Richard Wurmbrand returned to Romania, after years in exile and was hailed, both by the Christian community and the media, as one of the most influential writers of the decade.
The story of their survivor is on one hand the story of resistance and on the other hand one of remembrance. „To be held for years in prison is a misfortune. But it is a tragedy to be held for so many years in prison and not to learn from this (…) not to be angry against the innocent, but from knowledge to get some lessons” (In God’s…, p. 11). The fact that one remembers the experience of Communist Gulag has a pedagogical finality, those who were never subjected to this tragedy. Again Wurmbrand expresses his belief in these words: „I believe that what we suffer today can be useful for the future generations” (In God’s…, p. 114).
This bearing witness against Communism (and for Christianity) is the mark of Wurmbrand’s passing through the labor camp and penitentiary system. One of his first encounters in the Communist jail was with the former leader of the Communist Party, Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu. Wurmbrand recounts their discussions and the long debate about tyranny, terror and the relationship between Christian faith and „Communist faith”. Wurmbrand was a witness against Communism both in prison and outside the prison. The evil nature of communism, that has no distinctions, all the groups are put together, people who played bridge were guilty of playing, of the „stamp exchangers”, just because they made exchanges of stamps with the face of the Marshall Antonescu – the dementia nature of the regime of terror. Condemning people for their normal actions – one is not condemned for illegal activities but for what he is!
Steinhardt recounts his meeting, after the years of imprisonment, with Bellu Zilber, a Communist friend who, during the 30’s had many contradictory discussions with Steinhardt and his friend Manole (Em. Neuman). „Who would have guessed”, recounts Steinhardt, „that we will both be clients (he himself more faithful than me) of communist jails and that we would find each other, me stronger in my anti-communist beliefs, himself cured of communism?”. Wurmbrand is speaking about this „cure of communism”, an almost medical effort to heal and vaccinate the people they meet, people infected by this ideological disease. „Why?” is the question of Steinhardt, „Because madness is contagious and because every totalitarian regime is also mad” (p. 388).
Courage and Happiness: Wurmbrand and Steinhardt are proofs that any dictatorship is afraid of free men. And why was the Communist regime afraid of these men? One of the motives comes from the reason Wurmbrand was arrested. In a sermon he said that „Christians must keep hope, because of the wheel of history turns, and the wheel of life. ”You meant us, that communism will change, that communism will fall. Never will it fall.” It has been reproached to me that in a sermon I have said Christians must practice patience, patience, and again patience. ”Ah, you meant that the Americans will come and we must be patient until they come.”
Steinhardt, in turn, refused to be a witness in the law-suite opened by the communist state against the “lot of mystical-legionary intellectuals”, (legionaries were adherents to extreme nationalism and strongly anti-Semitic), and was convicted to 13 years of hard labor in prison, under charges of “crime of plotting against the social order”. Wurmbrand recounts how, at the ”Congress of Cults” held by the Communist government in the early 1945, he had asked for confrontation with the regime partyliners. Religious leaders stepped forward to swear loyalty to the new regime. Sabrina asked Richard to ”wipe the shame from the face of Jesus.” Richard replied that if he stepped forward, she would no longer have a husband. ”I don’t need a coward for a husband,” she answered. And so Richard stepped forward and told the 4,000 delegates that their duty as Christians was to glorify God and Christ alone.
Richard Wurmbrand testified in May 1966 before the American Senate’s internal security sub-committee (testimony available at http://members.cox.net/wurmbrand/communist.html, September 2008). In his speech before the subcommittee, Wurmbrand said that the agents of the communist regime threatened him: ”Dollars have been received for you. You will have to leave the country, but perhaps we will let some time pass, because your remembrances of prison are too fresh and you have too good a pen.” This was what communists feared most: the exposure of their atrocities by the victims of repression among the intellectuals. This living testimony was given by Wurmbrand who stripped his clothes before the American senators in the committee and showed his torture marks. His books stand out as a shattering testimonial of the atrocities of the communist regime. Here is what Steinhardt calls the Churchill/Bukovsky solution against the totalitarian regimes. He recounts what Vladimir Bukovsky described, that when he was summoned by the KGB he was anxious, not because he was afraid, but because he desired to „be in front of them, to tell them everything I believed about them, and bulldoze them like a tank. I could not imagine a greater happiness” (The Diary…, Introduction).
For Steinhardt (The Diary…, p 104) the courage feeds on Biblical reference, on personal life experiences and on literary and cultural examples. He quotes equally from Descartes as from Saint Paul, giving examples of kings and of historical facts. For him, it is the lack of courage of the people that brings dictatorships into being. And the differences between Communism and Christianity lie not only in the way they treat individuals. The fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity resides in the conflicting values. „The Communists believed the source of happiness to be material satisfaction; as for myself, alone in my cell, stinking, starved and dressed in rags, I was dancing of joy every night” (In God’s…, p. 56). This sense of elevated happiness is portrayed by Steinhardt in The Diary of Happiness, which offers an exemplary account of all conceivable torments of Communist detention. „I personally see Christianity as a lysergic hyper acid and a more „powerful” version of books like The Art of Being Happy or How to Succeed by Dale Carnegie…” Happiness is not „only for certain places, at the holy mountain. It’s everywhere. It is a universal recipe” (The Diary…, p. 171).
To echo Wurmbrand again: „I was in solitary confinement the first 2, nearly 3 years. … For years I never saw the sun, the moon, nor any flowers, the snow, or the stars, no man except the interrogator who was there to inflict pain; and yet I can say I was able to see heaven open up, I saw Jesus Christ, I saw the angels, and was very happy there.” He goes on to say, „I am sorry I would have liked to paint the beautiful shining faces of Christians in Communist jail. Their faces glowed, and it was quite an achievement for the glory of God to shine on the face of a Christian in Communist jails. We did not wash (I had not washed in three years), but the glory of God can shine even from behind a crust of dirt. They had triumphant smiles on their faces. I know about Christians who were released from Communist prisons. I was one who was stopped several times on the street by passersby asking, ”Sir, what is it with you? You look like such a happy man. What is the source of your happiness’?” I told them that I had served many years in Communist jails.” (http://www.ceruldinnoi.ro/pages/Richard%20Wurmbrand.htm, available October 2008).
On a concluding note, in both Wurmbrand’s and Steinhardt’s legacy there is above all a strong belief in humanity, fully evidenced, starting with the many examples of the „good warden” that both authors provide from their prison experiences, to their constant effort to practice Christian love, or as Steinhardt says: „love the supreme Christian virtue, the only perennial virtue – is the undeniable means by which we can prove our humanity and Christianity” (Giving is Receiving, p. 67).
References: Sorin Alexandrescu, Paradoxul român, Ed. Univers, Bucureşti, 1998.
Randolph Braham, The Tragedy of Romanian Jewry, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994.
The Final Report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, November 2004, http://yad vashem.org.il/about_yad/what_new/data_ whats_new/report1.html
Radu Ioanid, The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime: 1940-1945, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2000
Nicolae Steinhardt, Jurnalul fericirii, Dacia, Cluj, 1991
Nicolae Steinhardt, Ispita lecturii, îngrijit de Pr. Ioan Pintea, Dacia, Cluj, 2000.