Many Christians will have heard of Richard Wurmbrand, the famous Romanian pastor imprisoned under the communists. Others will know of Iosif Ton and Paul Negrut, also leading Romanian pastors, and their testimonies of God’s sustaining grace. Peter Dugulescu’s is another story of note. And yet behind these men stand a rank of lesser known Romanian soldiers for Christ whose stories are sadly slipping into the obscurity of history, lost forever to the Christian church. One of these is the faithful Romanian martyr, Pastor Vasile Gherman.
On a fairly nondescript April day in 2017 I and two others traveled to Timisoara in an attempt to remedy this. Our hope was to interview Lidia Gherman, Vasile’s widow. Her small flat was in a tower block, one of those communist edifices sardonically termed “vertical graves” by their occupants many years before. Even as we approached in the car Lidia’s nephew Marius indicated that Lidia may refuse to speak to us on account of the pain involved. We silently hoped this wouldn’t be the case, and made our introductions.
There was little in Lidia’s bespectacled, reserved features to suggest such a dramatic history. Such expressionless countenances are fairly common in Romanians of a certain age. But we set up our recording equipment and the interview began.
Early Ministry Years
Lidia first came to know Vasile when he was a young engineering student in Timisoara. He had stood out as a keen Christian. He was taken under the wing of Liviu Olah, the leader of the well known Oradea revival in the 1970's, who often asked students to accompany him and give their testimonies when he was preaching in village churches. This Vasile did on many occasions.
In the mid 1970’s it was decided that Vasile should pursue theological studies in the Baptist seminary in Bucharest. In years past this seminary had been specifically targeted by the communist authorities, who restricted its intake to a handful of students per annum. This was relaxed somewhat in the mid 1970’s, allowing Vasile his opportunity. His course lasted for four years, Lidia and his two sons remaining in Timisoara.
During Vasile’s final two years in Bucharest, he often preached in Orsova. Orsova is located in Oltenia, approximately 100 miles west of Bucharest. It is of interest to students of church history in Romania as being the town to which Richard Wurmbrand was sent after his first spell in prison (1948-56). Wurmbrand had been subject to an official warning with regards to the church’s growth that if membership increased beyond the existing 36 he would be subject to the direst consequences. Fortunately Wurmbrand was as implacable an opponent of Communism as communism was of evangelical Christianity, and his re-imprisonment and subsequent ministry in America is the stuff of legend.
Even during Vasile’s student pastorate in Orsova, communist hijinks were in evidence. An American Christian who witnessed Vasile’s attempts to cycle to his congregation sent money to Romania for the purchase of a car. Unfortunately such transfers of funds required an explanation to the bank, which somehow led to the sellers being tipped off and upping the price. Vasile tried to make up the difference with Romanian currency, only for this to refused. A further request was made of the generous American, who duly obliged and the car was purchased. The involvement of communist agents was suspected.
Labours, Opposition and Triumph
The evangelical churches in Oltenia in the 1970’s were enthusiastic and financially independent of the Romanian government. This was in marked contrast to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which was heavily dependent on the state for subsidies. Evangelical assemblies were, however, closely watched and regulated by the communists. No one under the age of 18 was allowed to be baptised. When Lidia was a young child, the baptism of people who had previously been members of the Romanian Orthodox Church was also forbidden. Converts would sometimes travel secretly to Serbia to be baptised there. A slight lifting of restrictions had occurred by the time of Vasile’s arrival in Orsova, with a baptismal service of 22 people occurring in 1980.
Vasile was extremely busy at this time. He eventually planted and pastored 13 churches in the Oltenia region. He formed other Christian assemblies as well that were not authorised by the state.
He was much sustained by the Lord. When taken in for questioning, he would speak politely and seek to witness to his faith as the Lord allowed him opportunity.
Surprisingly, the Gherman’s two sons experienced a relatively peaceful time at school. Although the children of evangelical parents were often subject to taunts and derision, this sometimes being led by the teachers, the Gherman boys escaped this.
In the background, however, opposition remained. For example, a woman and her mother started to attend the Orsova church from the mining town of Motru. This involved a 12 km walk for them in both directions. Naturally curious, her neighbours started to inquire about the church they were attending. The communist authorities heard of this, and sent agents to wait for the mother and daughter on their return journey and intimidate them.
Such threatenings, it must be said, failed dismally. The older woman soon set aside a room in her house in which Christians could meet. Pastors would visit and preach, and in 1985 or 1986 12 candidates presented themselves for baptism. This service was to be held in Orsova.
Expecting shenanigans from the communists, the candidates decided to walk to Orsova instead of catching the bus as usual, leaving at 4am for this purpose. Their sacrifice proved wise, as the communists cancelled all buses that day, but they were frustrated in their attempt to prevent the baptism!
In the village of Topletz, which had a larger population, there were two evangelical churches. One of these had authorisation to meet, but the other did not. The communist authorities therefore attempted to demolish the latter, sending a bulldozer for this purpose. An elderly convert, however, not originally from an evangelical Christian family, stood in front of the bulldozer in opposition. The bulldozer’s driver thought better of his orders and left, and the church building in Topletz remains standing to this day.
Further opposition occurred in relation to burial services. Orthodox priests were fiercely protective of their cemeteries. On one occasion a request from an evangelical family to bury their loved one was flatly refused until the decision of the priest was opposed by public opinion, which won the day. On another occasion, the local priest locked evangelical believers inside the cemetery while they were holding their service. This attempt at humiliation was defeated by some of the stronger believers lifting the cemetery gates off their hinges, Samson-like, allowing everyone to return home.
Lidia was completely at one with her husband in his labours for the Lord. When asked how she felt about his battles with the authorities, she answered by saying that wanted to help him and to win the fight against an evil, godless system.
Vasile at this time was held in affection and high regard by many non-Christian people. Lidia’s commentary on this was salutary: “my husband was loved and knew how to make himself loved”.
Unfortunately, this sentiment was not shared by two highly influential yet sinister opponents, namely the communist authorities and the Romanian Orthodox Church.
At a closed meeting of the local communist party in 1988 many priests clamoured for action to be taken against Vasile, whom they accused of stealing their sheep. Something needed to be done to rid the locality of this “turbulent priest”.
The official story regarding the fateful evening a few months later was that Pastor Vasile had been speeding in his car. He had failed to observe a stationary vehicle ahead of him, into which his car had crashed, the impact being of sufficient strength to kill him. Immediately after the accident Lidia was not told as to whether Vasile had survived, and was barred from entering the hospital where she believed he was being kept.
Little in relation to the official account rang true. Firstly, Vasile was not normally a fast driver. Secondly, the accident occurred in daylight hours, and the likelihood of Vasile not having seen a stationary vehicle was extremely low. Thirdly, there was a general sense of incredulity even among the general, non-Christian populace. “The people knew it wasn’t an accident” were Lidia’s sobering words.
Rumours abounded that Vasile had been shot, and that the car accident had been stage-managed. While Lidia had been refused permission to view his body in the hospital mortuary, Vasile's father had been, and he testified that the back of Vasile’s head had been packed with cotton wool.
It was only in the year 2000 that the truth finally emerged.
A notorious Romanian criminal, Beniamin Jianu, became a Christian that year while in prison. Jianu had received the maximum sentence for killing several members of his fiance’s family in a fit of rage in the 1990's. Prior to that, however, he had been a hitman for the Romanian Secret Police. Following his conversion, he confessed to having committed five assassinations during the communist era. One of them had been that of Pastor Vasile Gherman. With many tears, he confessed to having posed as a hitchhiker only to shoot Vasile when he stopped to offer him a lift. He then pushed the pastor’s car under a stationary vehicle in order to simulate a tragic accident. Jianu has since shown remarkable consistency in his Christian profession, and there is no reason to suggest that his testimony was false.
Vasile, in one sense, had made good preparations for such an event. He had sought to ordain elders in his churches who were capable preachers and familiar with church administration. After Vasile’s death the churches continued to grow.
Lidia, however, in the months that followed, encountered the heartlessness of the communist regime at full strength. Her request to return to her wider family in Timisoara was declined. Employment in the Orsova area proved elusive, at least one company being given orders to refuse Lidia’s application. Although Lidia had family in Timisoara, and was heir to half a house in the city, permission to move there was never granted, she eventually having to wait until after the revolution.
At this point in our meeting, we discussed Lidia’s adult sons and their spiritual welfare. Lidia stated that neither are Christians, both of them citing their father’s death and its tragic circumstances as their grounds for unbelief. Her daughter Cristina, who was a year old when her father died, belongs to the Lord.
How the tears flowed at this juncture! And how fresh they were. Though the events of our discussion were almost thirty years old, the tears seemed to be flowing for the sorrows of yesterday. And perhaps this dimension of martyrdom is often overlooked in the Christian circles. While it justifiably retains an air of splendour, the depth of sorrow inflicted by sudden tragic parting lifts slowly.
We asked Lidia if any particular thread of truth had been especially sustaining to her over the years. Surprisingly, she commented on how her situation had been easier than that of certain other people, and that she saw the Lord’s mercy in this.
After the farewells, I returned to Lidia to share something I believed the Lord had put on my heart. The thought was simply this – that the last page of this story is yet to be written. The middle pages of great accounts can be deeply troubling, with perplexity, suffering and heartbreak aplenty. But one day, when Lidia and Vasile are reunited in heaven and in the immediate presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, the sorrows of this life may be viewed in a very different way. And as for her two sons, well, perhaps a narrative of powerful conversion and saving grace awaits.
In the meantime, we in Romanian Ministries were glad to help with a gift to ease Lidia's financial needs and to encourage her on her way. To the Lord be all the glory!