The not so known Communist bank heist

Romania, 1959, the Golden Age of Communism, a taxi full of five young intellectual elites swerves next to the National Bank to stop a money van in the process of unloading bags of cash. One of them sets up a camera, and shouts “Action!”, the others using what seemed to be real guns force the drivers to empty the money into their getaway car, from where they make their hasty escape. At first the witnesses thought a film was just shot, but later it became obvious that there were no lights, no props, only the actors shooting what seemed to be a fast paced action flick next to a sign that read “Film in Progress”. Something was off. The biggest heist in Communist history had just happened.
They were called the Ioanid gang. Six Jewish intellectuals who managed to steal 250,000 dollars from Romania’s National Bank in 1959 under the guise of filming a movie, not in order to live lavishly, rather to make a point of the farce of the despotic state in which Communist Romania found itself, and the fervent lie which was Communism. Yet, not only was this the most daring act of theft ever done in a Communist state, but it is also an unbelievable story of twists, cover ups, and plain bravery that even led to a few feature films, and numerous documentaries.
This is the story of how a few intellectuals had the courage to fight against a totalitarian regime, ironically enough one which they had fought for to set up against overwhelming tyranny. During the Second World War, Alexandru Ioanid, Paul Ioanid, Monica Sevianu, Igor Sevianu, Haralambie Obedeanu, and Saşa Muşat served as partisans against the Nazi forces that ravaged Romania, and its Jewish population. At the time young fervent socialists, they welcomed the Soviet liberation of 1944 with open arms. They later played a substantial role along with many other Jews in setting up the foundations of Communism in Romania.
In 1947, they were ecstatic with Communist rule, ushering a new age where Romania would no longer be a backward monarchic theocracy-so was promised, yet after a few years they became, like many young Jews at the time, disillusioned with the new order and the ideals that soon proved to be hypocritical. This became even more so after the disposal of Anna Pauker the unofficial leader of the PCR since 1947, whose stance on Israel did not align with Stalin’s own views. After her removal, and Dej’s rise to power the totalitarian aspects of the the regime became extrusive, as the Securitate gained exclusive unlimited powers of coercion.
Alexandru Ioanid, the most protuberant out of the five actually served as a colonel in the Securitate until his position by pull was diminished after he divorced his wife. He along with the other 4 members of the gang began to spend more time together, as they did when they fought together on Romania’s plains as partisans against the other form of despotism, until they decided to do something against what was an egregious situation.
Few Jews could leave for Israel, as no Romanian was allowed outside the country’s borders, and all forms of communication were controlled. The PCR was beginning to resemble Stalin’s Soviet Union. Interestingly, the five Jews fought for their and their families existence during the Second World War, and now in the nation they helped to save were facing antisemitism again, amid the promise of a "raceless" and equal proletarian society.
The robbery had shocked the entire Securitate and government, as such an act was unthinkable in the proletarian utopia which was considered Romania, but was something people heard of in the “immoral” confines of Capitalist-nations. The heist was kept a secret, but word most likely spread across Bucharest, and through relentless policing they managed to finally capture the gang about two months later. Here is where it gets a bit weird.
The Securitate forced the Ioanid Gang to reenact the entire escapade from planning, to the actual heist and even the aftermath, with what is believed to have been the promise of staving off execution. They were promised leniency if they would all act as themselves in the documentary film which was released in 1960 and was literally called Reconstruction. The film was never meant for public eyes but was merely developed for the Party lines, and intelligentsia as reference of what happened. However, it was not a documentary film, but pure propaganda.
Reconstruction was buffed up with lies about the intense and “malefic” planning the five allegedly went through, and the way they used the money it to live lavish lives. The movie shows all of them enjoying meals at hotels reserved only for elite party members, buying champagne, riding in expensive cars. Things which could have never happened in real life, without actually drawing attention, especially in a state where neighbors were trained not only to spy on other neighbors but to report them of any minuscule suspicion they harbored.
The propaganda film was maliciously used to fuel antisemitism which was already very rampant in Romania, to show that Jews could not “understand” proletarian dialectics, and socialism, which was utterly ironic as most of the Party lines in 1947 that set up socialism was allocated of secularized Jews, many of which later made aliyah to leave Romania.
In the end the Securitate executed four of the intellectuals, and imprisoned Monica Sevianu in 1960 due to the fact that she was pregnant. In 1964 after pressure from Israel was placed on Dej, the PCR gave her amnesty and allowed her to immigrate to Israel with her son.
The Ioanid Gang had not committed theft, rather they symbolically defied tyranny and had done an incogitable act: they robbed a bank in a Communist state. When the authorities found the money, the guns, and all of the filming equipment it was obvious that they did not spend much of the money at all, but kept it. Although it was valued at 250,000 dollars, it could not be exchanged anywhere, which made it virtually worthless outside of Romania. The exact truth of what happened will never be know as no records have been left behind, but it is obvious that the PCR wanted to hide everything about the five Jewish intellectuals that probably were not a thorn, but thorns in its side.
Milad Doroudian, a native of Jassy, Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of
The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941.