The Communist Heist of 1959

You’d have to be pretty out of your mind to rob a bank – let alone during the communist times. But it happened, and the authorities were so shocked that they documented the investigation in a movie, casting in the leading roles the real-life protagonists of the heist.

Closer to the Moon (2014) - filmstill
Closer to the Moon (2014) - filmstill with Mark Strong, Vera Farmiga. Photo: Image Capital Pictures / Film Stills / Forum

It was the summer of 1959. Communist Romania was doing better than ever – not the people, however. The massive process of nationalization began, and suddenly, people from all over the country found themselves stripped of the little they had.

Monasteries were emptied, and hundreds of monks were kicked out. Numerous writers, poets, and former politicians were taken to court by the Securitate under suspicion of treason and rebellion. According to the authorities, the country was in full bloom.

This is what history books recall about the year 1959. Few know, however, that the very same year marked the very first – and only – an attack on the Romanian Communist Bank.

Romanian National Bank robbery: a million dollar job

July 28 began just like your typical Romanian summer day. The sun was shining, the proletariat was working, and the most common sounds heard over the capital city of Bucharest were, ”Da, tovarășe” (Eng.: Yes, comrade). It was the same everywhere, except in front of the Romanian National Bank, where a mysterious car was parked.

It was the car entrusted to bring over the people’s salaries to the bank. But right when the car wheels stopped, another one parked behind it, and, suddenly, several masked people pointed their firearms at the two people in the government car. This was it – The Great Communist Bank Robbery.

The two of them froze, and in the meantime, the contents of the car were emptied into the thief’s car. In the blink of an eye, nearly USD 1 million worth of Romanian money was stolen.

The Romanian heist over the Communist Bank was the work of a gang of 6 people: five men and one woman. Interestingly enough, all six were former highly-praised and dedicated members of the Romanian Intelligence Service, all sympathizers of the Communist regime. We’re talking special agents, heads of the forensic service of the militia, heads in the aviation academy, faculty deans, and engineers.

Why would a group of such highly-ranked individuals rob a bank? And what did they plan to do with USD 1 million in traceable – unusable – Romanian money?

The unusual suspects

There have been various answers to this question. Officials declared it was an attack on the communist regime. The band stated (during interrogation) that it was done to financially support some Israeli nationalist organizations. At the end of the day, the final motivations are still unknown, and all the plausible answers are highly debatable. What is certain is that the robbery was an act that had never been seen before, one that shocked not just the citizens but the communist authorities, too.

In fact, they were so stunned by the events that they decided to make a movie entitled “The Reconstruction” to show in-depth, step by step, just how the act was carried out. Of course, the only ones allowed to watch the final product were members of the regime. To keep things as accurate as possible, they “hired” the very same individuals of the real heist to play their own roles in the film. They were promised reduced sentences for complying. Little did they know, there would be no mercy and no sentence to reduce, for five out of the six members were sentenced to death for attempting, and succeeding, in robbing the Romanian National Bank. Monica, the feminine compound of the gang, was sentenced to community work because she was a mother.

It’s been over 60 years since the robbery. Although Netflix runs now the 2004 film on the making of 1968 film (“The Great Communist Bank Robbery”), questions have multiplied. What was the true reason behind the heist? Was it an attack on the regime? Was it an act of aggression towards the government’s limitations regarding Jewish citizens? Was it indeed an attack made to financially support some organizations? And most importantly, were the suspects really killed? No one knows, and for as long as the earth continues to exist, likely, no one will ever know.

Naomi Gherman

Master student in Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations at Babeș-Bolyai University, eager to share more about our world's most fascinating stories and people. Romania-based reader, writer and content creator with a strong interest in journalism, foreign languages and politics.

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