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Bucharest, Romania - The mystery behind the Great Communist Bank Robbery

Outside the old National Bank in Bucharest, Romania

In 1959 it was a robbery at the Romanian National Bank in Bucharest. No one expected a bank robbery behind the Iron Curtain, but it was carried out by a gang of six members of the communist state - against all odds. Nobody exactly knows to this day what really happened or why the robbers did it, but the most peculiar events started after the robbery. Or was it not a robbery at all?

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Photo. Me outside the old national bank on Str. Lipscani 25 street in Bucharest where the great communist bank robbery allegedly happened in 1959. The facade of grey the building is marvellous shaped with huge columns, a clock and a dome with a turret. Bucharest is the capital municipality, cultural, industrial, and financial centre of Romania. It is the largest city in Romania and located in the southeast of the country. © Travel Explorations.

The official story goes like this: in the summer of 1959, a car of the National Bank of Romania was robbed in front of the bank’s central office in Bucharest. Five armed and masked men and one woman ran away with a substantial amount of money. Several months later they were caught and revealed as being all former high-ranking members of the Party and the Political Police, and all of them Jewish. What was going on?

Touring around in a high speed it`s easy to miss some of the most unique places and weird stories. First and foremost the mysticism about Transylvania attracted me to Romania. I wanted to take a deeper look into dramatic stories about Dracula, blood sucking vampires, haunted castles and fairytale landscapes. On my adventurous journey around in Romania I got the opportunity to explore mysterious places as the spooky Bran Castle "Dracula's Castle", Dracula`s birthplace Sighisoara and the architectural wonder Peles Castle, also called the Summer Palace. Through centures travellers returned from this region have shared stories of a strange and forbidden land. As I become full aware of: Romania is full of dramatic stories. The one I found most fascinating is about a bank robbery in Bucharest in 1959. Actual it was a lot more than just a simple robbery. You shall hear much before the ears fall of, but in this case I nearly lost mine.

On my first day in Bucharest I wanted to retraces this incredible story. Finally I found the old national bank in Str. Lipscani 25 street in the old town after a long walk in the dark evening. The build was illuminated in all its pride, and just when I was picking up my camera, most the light turned off.

Watch more photos of the old national bank where the dramatic event occured on Travel Explorations` Facebook page.

In 1959 six former members of the nomenclature and the Romanian secret police robbed the National Bank. They were called The Ioanid Gang (Romanian: Banda Ioanid) was named after two of its members, Alexandru and Paul Ioanid. After they were arrested, the state forced them to play themselves in a film reconstructing the crime and the investigation. At the end of their trial, filmed live, they are sentenced to death and executed. A month later, the "Reconstruction" was released and became a sensation throughout the county.

There were several unusual things about the story that captured my interest, and it`s still a big mystery what really happened. So far I know there are no credible explaination for motive for the robbery have ever been given. This was a peculiar occurrence since the local currency (the Lei) could only be spent inside Romania, and bank robberies, along with most other kinds of crimes, were presumed not to happen in the socialist utopia.

Based on information from Wikipedia (the most trusthworthy source?), on 28th July 1959, the most famous bank robbery was carried out ever to have occurred inside a Communist state. An armed group of six Jewish Romanian intellectuals and Romanian Communist Party cadres involving Alexandru Ioanid, Paul Ioanid, Igor Sevianu, Monica Sevianu, Saşa Muşat and Haralambie Obedeanu participated. They were alleged to have stolen 1,600,000 Romanian lei (about 250,000 United States dollars in 1959) from an armored car of the National Bank of Romania in 1959. The first five were alleged to have been in a getaway car, while Obedeanu was alleged to have been in a telephone cabin, keeping the bank's phone line busy.

The case was investigated by the Securitate (the Communist secret police), and the suspected robbers were arrested within two months. They were rounded up in night-time raids, trial behind closed doors, forced to confess, and everybody except one were sentenced to death. The executions, also kept under secrecy - including for family members of the victims, were carried out in 1960. Monica Sevianu, the only woman involved, got reduced her verdict to life imprisonment because she was a mother. Therefore she was released in 1964 through an amnesty for political crimes, and returned to Israel in 1970.

In 1960, the government released a propaganda film, Reconstituirea, to be viewed only by Communist Party members, which reconstructed the way in which the heist had allegedly been planned and carried out. Members of the Ioanid Gang acted in their own roles. It`s was said that they were promised by the authorities to commute their death sentences in return. At the same time the authories could "fabricate" the final evidence by displaying the film - and also strengthen their power.

Due to its sensitive topic, the film was never distributed theatrically across Romania. Decades later, two feature-length documentaries emerged from the USA and Romania. Both films touched on the same event and incorporated footage from the original film, but each offered a distinct perspective on the bank-heist scenario. There are several perspectives of the event. Apart from the original film, there have been several other movies and documentaries, including Reconstruction (2001) by Irene Lusztig, The Great Communist Robbery (2004) by Alexandru Solomon, and the film Closer to the Moon (2014) by Nae Caranfil, starring Harry Lloyd, Vera Farmiga, Mark Strong and Joe Armstrong.

Recent investigations have not brought new shed of light of what really happened. Little or nothing is known about the circumstances before the so called robbery. Anyway it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the recent history of Eastern Europe and the politcal situation in Romania at that time the Communist Romania was a police state, and kept everything under strict control.

Many questions are open: Where the arrested people guilty at all? Was the sentences based on false accusations? Where they trapped? Did the so called robbery actually took place or that those charged with the crime committed it? Why did they robb the bank? Did they really think it was possible to get a way with it in a communist state? How did they plan to spend the money without drawing attention? I assume they were aware of that it was not possible to exhange the money into hard currency at that time. With this in mind it doesen`t make sense to me that they were accused of intending to donate the money to Zionist organizations that would send Romanian Jews to Israel. For me it`s more likely that it was a anti-Semitism on the rise.

My theory is was a power struggle within the politcal system, or that the "robbers" were fed up the politcal system and corruption, and wanted to undermine the regime as they were a part of, and perhaps take over the control in a coup. I am really convinced that robbers had ambitions far higher than earlier allegated, and I also think that the trial was more a political process than a legal processs. The robbery was possible a part of plan that could start an earlier revolution in Romania and approaching towards the western Europe. Anyway many things doesen`t make sense. I assume we have just seen the tip of the ice berg yet. Hopefully there will be added more pieces to the puzzle in the future.

The last word is not spoken: what more could Monica and other remaining living tell about the robbery? Or the not-robbery?

Stein Morten Lund, 5th May 2015

Additional information
"Closer to the Moon" - Romania - Movie about the greatest Communist Bank Robbery: It`s the most expensive Romanian movie ever made, starring American and English actors like Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), Mark Strong (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), and Harry Lloyd (“Game of Thrones”). It`s based on the events, but will this movie bring new shed of light to the history and answer some unsolved questions?

15 Most Outrageous Bank Robberies of All Time (source: Background Checks.org):
The mentioned bank robbery in Bucharest is not on this list, but anyway it`s interesting reading for they who want to put it in perspective.

Banca Nationala a Romaniei:
The National Bank (BNR) is located in the old town in Bucharest. It stands on the site of one of the most famous buildings in Romania: the Hanul Serban Voda, which from 1678 until 1883 was the home of various things, from a pub, to an inn to a dormitory for a nearby girl's school. After two fires gutted the building however, the land was levelled and in 1883 work began on the BNR, completed to the designs of French architects Cassien Bernard and Albert Galleron in 1885. The building boasts a facade with Corinthian columns, and an enormous central banking hall. The passing of time has seen the building become rather hemmed in, but it remains a classic worthy of admiration (source: InYourPocket).

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