Living in old Communist Romania
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26
Reverend Visky (VISH-kee) is called Feribacsi (FER-ee-BAH-chee). Literally this means “Uncle Feri”. Uncle is a title of respect given to older men. He is 81 years old. He is a man of God and a member of the Hungarian Reformed Church.
From 1950 to 1989, when there was dramatic political change, Christians in Romania lived under constant surveillance of the Communist military government, enduring surprise searches of their homes, seizure of their property, interrogations by the Secret Police, and other forms of persecution, torture and imprisonment.
Feribacsi described Communism as a fiery furnace much like that which Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into and survived (Daniel 3). He too survived imprisonment, not by his own will or strength, but because God was there with him. He said, “We must expect to be persecuted just as Christ and the prophets were. Our faith must be worthy of challenge and able to pass through fire, or it is not authentic and it will instead be consumed by the fire.”
In the 1950s, the Communists in Romania wanted to destroy anyone who challenged their ideology. The challenge did not need to be political, only an expression of something different. As a result, many churches were closed altogether, any church activity still permitted was very severely restricted; and no Christians were permitted to work in jobs where they could associate with children. Christians continued to meet in secret under the pretence of celebrating family events like birthdays and weddings.
To further intimidate the people, who did not conform to the ways and beliefs of Communism, the military rounded up the political enemies of the state and the leaders of the Christians and imprisoned them as counter-revolutionaries. If the government had succeeded in associating the Christians with the politicians, the Christians would have been sentenced to death. As it was, in 1958, 20 Hungarian Reformed ministers and believers were sentenced to 7-22 years in prison for resisting political change. Among these was the Reverend Ferenc (FEHR-ehnts) Visky.
Although he says he was not a leader, Feribacsi was a known and respected member of the Christian Endeavour Union in Romania. For seven years he lived in what he calls a “university” but we know it to have been a prison cell. While he was in the penitentiary and persecuted for his faith in Christ, the Communist government confiscated all of their possessions and properties and his family was deported. Taken to the middle of nowhere and left to die, his wife and seven children survived by the grace of God and the kindness of strangers.
Feribacsi reminded his listeners that God has said, “I shall never break my covenant with you.” It was in remembering this that his wife found strength not to cry in the courtroom when the judge pronounced Feribacsi’s sentence of 22 years. When asked, she said, “I don’t cry because all is in God’s hands.” This she said and believed, even though she also knew that most who were imprisoned by that regime, died within five years of their incarceration.
Those who survived their imprisonment were released in 1964, under the pressure of the United States and in exchange for economic aid to Romania from the US government.
“God holds us responsible for whether or not we obey Him and keep covenant with Him,” said Feribacsi. “Because man is wilful and sinful, history repeats itself and those who adopt the spiritual tradition are persecuted. We must therefore be faithful in prayer and action to overcome the wilful and sinful traditions of man. God prepares us for what the world holds as we read His Word and apply His Word.”
Speaking from Judges – Chapter 2, Feribacsi said that we must weep and mourn our sin and we must remember that God will do what He promises, even to deliver to us the consequences of our sin. “It is sin that damages our relationship with God. Real joy comes with the forgiveness we experience from the Lord. His grace delivers us to learning what grieves God and gives us opportunity to be redeemed.”
Of the book of Judges, Feribacsi said, “It is very sad. There was no king and the people did whatever they wanted. Yet from the beginning God established order so we must follow His way. If we do not obey His laws and observe His covenant, then we live in chaos. Sin is followed by punishment. That is also in the covenant.”
On the subject of his own suffering Feribacsi said, “When we understand and believe that we are meant for this, as Christ was persecuted, then we find the blessing in suffering. If you suffer in the strength of the Lord, then He sustains you through the pain and horror. Don’t look for it, but accept it when it happens.”
When he first went to prison and was awaiting trial, Feribacsi thought his children would think him a hero. Finding out his family was deported after he was sentenced put him instead in awe of them, for while he got food in prison, they got nothing. It was then he realized that suffering is not a condition of being a Christian, rather it cannot be separated from the Christian life.
Just as ravens fed Elijah in the wilderness, the dogs of soldiers brought bread to the Visky family. Even out of our misfortune, God brings good. Of this he said, “The one who does wonders is greater than the wonders themselves.”
Referring to the sufferings of Job, Feribacsi said, “God gives back richly what others take away.” He then told his listeners that his seven children, their spouses, and their 25 children are all children of faith and serving in the work of God.
Feribacsi reminded his listeners that suffering is not just persecution, it is also weeping for others. He also admonished them to never let suffering become an idol. To see clearly he said, “One must look through Christ at all things and thereby recognize that Christ is suffering with you. What they do to you, they do to Him. It doesn’t make it better, but it does make it easier to bear.”
How did you come to be a minister?
I am the son of a minister. It is tradition that sons follow their fathers, even in ways of generosity and kindness because Christ is the centre of all that is good.
There was a man in my town who persecuted Christians. He was very powerful and mean. As a minister, I would go to all the houses in the village and visit the people but I was not allowed to enter his house. One day word came to me that he was very sick. So my wife and I decided to visit him for this reason. We approached his gate and his dog rushed at us barking and blocking our entrance. I started to reason with the dog, telling him that he was a good dog, obedient to his master and I too was obeying my Master. As I talked to him of my Master he stopped barking and let us approach the door of the house. Then he began again, even more ferociously than before. This time I spoke to him as a sportsman drawing analogies from the game of chess. He immediately quieted down and allowed us to pass into the house. When we entered and met with the man, I was able to tell him of his good dog and again draw the comparison of a servant responding to the commands of his master to let him know I was not to be deterred from doing my Master’s bidding. It was then I found out that the dog’s name was actually Chess and he had responded to my use of his name! This is how I know that Christ is in the centre of all things good because of all the dogs in the village, I had never heard of a dog called Chess and I never knew it was the name of that man’s dog!
When did you move beyond religious traditionalism and into a deep personal relationship with Christ?
My faith became real when I was in school. I was travelling on a train with other students. There was a group who was singing of Jesus. I wondered how could Jesus be so personal to these people that they could sing about Him? Their faith was real and in comparison mine was dead. I wanted it to be alive like theirs so I joined these students and met the Saviour. Later, I met my wife.
How old were you when you were in prison?
I was in my forties.
What were the conditions like in prison?
We wore chains made for animals riveted together so they could not come apart. We slept on beds of concrete. We each had a metal cup. When we were convicted and sentenced, they took our clothes away and gave us striped prison uniforms. Until they did that, we still had hope. When they did that they stripped away our individual identities and we were humiliated.
God has many images in unity. Within the spectrum of grace is love — beautiful, delicate and attentive. The first day I walked into my cell, I laughed for joy of a chamber pot! My cellmate thought I was crazy but God knew I had a problem with my kidneys and needed to go to the bathroom more than once a day, which until then was all that was allowed. Only the day before, had the order been given to put a chamber pot in each cell. To this detail God showed His love for me.
What were you given to eat?
We ate whatever they gave us. We ate and we praised God. Cabbage soup and cornbread. Sometimes the cornbread contained bits of mice. If you didn’t eat, you died. Often I lost consciousness from lack of food. They fed us soup made from the skins of potatoes, which contained a sort of poison that really irritated our throats. Many became ill as a result.
(Note:Rev. Visky lost 40 pounds while in prison. He is a small man of slight build, and even today probably only weighs 120.)
What kind of work did you do in prison?
Because of the crimes of which we were convicted, we had no right to work and no right to receive anything from the outside. We had a daily program of prayer, of singing and of recitation. After five years, after that time in which we should have died, the order came down that we should be put to work in the prison. Ironically, they marched us through the kitchen every day on our way to work.
Just as Christ became sin for us, a man stole food for me when we walked through the kitchen. The Communists stole our lives and we stole back from them, from under the influence of the devil.
How did you survive?
I survived by the prayers of my brothers (my fellow Christians) and the bits of extra food they fed me to keep me alive.
What sustained you in prison?
By realizing there is life when you accept death. Many will accept the life of Christ but who accepts death? Only through death do we live. In that understanding God comforted me and enabled me to release my family to His care, as if they were dead.
Love shortens time. Remember Jacob worked seven years for Leah and then seven more for Rachel. I thought the least I could do was to love the Lord to the extent that Jacob loved Rachel.
Jesus did not count the crowd or the loaves and fishes … He counted on God’s grace to be sufficient to meet the need.
Our own will hinders us, but the will of God sets us free.
Could you worship in prison?
Prayer was forbidden, but prayer does not have to be outward. In Matthew 6:6, the Lord said go into a closet to pray and the Secret Police gave us these “special” closets (ie., cells) in which to pray.
Could you have a Bible in prison?
Not for six years … during that time we had only our memories, this was our manna.
Prison is the best commentary to the Bible.
Could you talk to anyone?
We were not supposed to talk, but we had ways to communicate. We would knock on the walls or press our metal cups to the wall and speak into our cups.
At the “university” you get to study many things and you become creative or inventive in how you use things. For example, I used a sliver of wood as a needle. The penalty for having this found on my prison uniform was seven days in solitary confinement.
In solitary you have two days of hunger and then food on the third day. This was my diet for a week. You have no pillows or blankets, only darkness.
While in solitary I heard knocking on the wall. I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes the guards would do the knocking to trick the prisoners. I didn’t know if I should answer or not, but I did. It was the man in the next cell. He asked where I was from and I told him, “The cell of the ministers.” He was so happy. He said he had been waiting a long time for someone to hear his confession and asked me if I would. This is not my practice but it is what the Orthodox ministers do so I said, “Yes.” He talked and I listened. When he was done he asked me what penance he needed to do to be forgiven for his sins. I told him he had to pray and ask God to forgive him. He said he did not know how to pray and so I taught him. There in prison he accepted Christ as his Saviour. Later he asked me how long I would be there because there was so much more he wanted to learn. I said, “For seven days.” He said he was being released from solitary on the next day, but when the guards came to get him he would do something so they would put him back into solitary and he could continue his lessons with me. I told him, “Don’t be such a good Christian!”
Even when we are lonely, we are never alone. God is with us.
How did your family survive?
Food is never enough without the Word of God. They ate the Word of the Lord. My wife prayed and blessed the Lord, even when there was nothing. Faith, love and service made them look good despite their circumstances.
When I was in Los Angeles I met a woman who (at the time had also lived in Romania, and who) had sent eleven ‘care packages’ to the area where my family was deported. These parcels were simply wrapped with string and
addressed ‘to a pastor’s wife with seven children’. My wife, from the hands of strangers, received all eleven parcels.
When you suffer in the strength of the Lord, He sustains you. The one who asks will get and God will look after what He gives. Just like the two women took their problem to King Solomon (I Kings 3), you must take all problems to Jesus.
God and his Son, the Lord Jesus. “He loved me before I repented.”