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The greatest bank heist in communist history

On the six audacious Romanian Jews, including the writer's cousin, at the center of a new film about a very strange crime with even stranger consequences
Screenshot from the new Romanian film, Closer to the Moon, about a band of Jews who pulled off a bank heist in broad daylight by pretending to shoot a Hollywood Western (YouTube)
Screenshot from the new Romanian film, Closer to the Moon, about a band of Jews who pulled off a bank heist in broad daylight by pretending to shoot a Hollywood Western (YouTube)
Vera Farmiga
Vera Farmiga

A new Romanian film is making the festival circuit. It’s called “Closer to the Moon”.

It stars big Hollywood names such as Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga and BAFTA nominee Mark Strong. The film is directed by Romanian filmmaker Nae Caranfil. The story involves a bank robbery perpetrated in broad daylight by six Jews (five men and one woman), who in 1959 pretended to be shooting a Hollywood Western in downtown Bucharest, capital of Romania. The bank robbers were all elite members of the Communist regime of the time. One of them was my first cousin Sasha.

The bank robbers got away with 1.6 million Romanian Lei (the equivalent of 1 million USD) and they burned the loot in a field. They were then hunted down by the regime, tried in a closed-door kangaroo court, and sentenced to death (all except the woman who was pregnant and who later emigrated to Israel). Then, in a bizarre twist to the already twisted Communist show trials, the accused were asked to recreate their crime in a full-length 35 mm film, produced by the very regime that sentenced them to death.

The black and white film called Reconstruction, Reconstituirea in Romanian, was released to the party faithful. It didn’t get a wide theatrical release, as originally planned because Romania’s Communist dictators realized that the film would turn the robbers into heroes. So my cousin and his friends were executed and buried in unmarked graves and the film was buried in the vaults of the Romanian film archives. It is this story that Closer to the Moon purports to tell.

The film is gaining some momentum in prestigious screening locations such as New York’s Lincoln Center. Three documentary films were already made on the subject; one by California filmmaker, Irene Lusztig the granddaughter of Monica Sevianu, the only woman that took part in the heist. It’s a personal odyssey to understand her family’s history. The other, called “The Great Communist Robbery,” was made by my friend, Romanian filmmaker Alexandru Solomon. His film attempted to get to the bottom of what actually happened. After all, for years rumors abounded that the bank robbers had been framed by the regime. Solomon’s investigation proved that the event actually occurred, but it left the motives of the perpetrators somewhat obscure. Then there was my documentary film, Charging the Rhino.

My film doesn’t deal exclusively with the bank heist. It focuses on the Romanian Holocaust, as told through my family history. But the story of my cousin, Sasha Gleinstein, whose mother was my father’s sister, Sara, known as “Florica”, the “Rose”, was weaved into the narrative of the Holocaust as an example of how the pre-war anti-Semitism survived and flourished under Romanian Communism.

My father Joseph and his nephew Sasha
My father Joseph and his nephew Sasha

Sasha was an idealist, a leader in the Communist Youth movement. He was also a hero. During the Second World War, he fought against Romanian Fascism, at one point raiding a Fascist police station and stealing its weapons. After the war, he was probably working as an agent for the Romanian regime. In 1952, one year before I was born, he visited my father, Joseph, who was his uncle but in age closer to an older brother, in Israel. I know that my father tried to persuade Sasha not to go back to Romania. Sasha was already disappointed with Romanian Communism. He realized that the utopia that he fought for was a mirage and that the regime that he helped found was turning against the Jews. But, according to my father, Sasha felt that there was no place he could hide from the long arm of Romania’s assassins. He also hoped that he could still make a difference. So he went back, only to see the Jews being purged from the Communist party, framed, jailed and executed.

In my documentary film, I proposed the idea that the bank heist was a performance piece – a kind of finger to the regime – by people who had nothing to lose. They knew that they were next, so they stole worthless money (there was nothing to buy in Romania at the time and Romanian money had no value on the international market) so as to demonstrate to the Communist dictatorship that it is not invincible. It is said that the accused were offered commutations of their death sentences if they participated in the absurd movie of the heist. I believe they were smarter than that. They enjoyed their last moments on earth as movie stars – playing themselves in their moment of glory – and I’m sure they prayed that the film would outlast the regime – it did!

“Closer to the Moon” comes at a good time. Once again, European intellectuals package their anti-Semitism in highbrow terminology like “anti-Zionism” or “BDS” (Boycott, Divest, Sanction). So as the clouds of Jew hatred gather on the horizon, it’s important to take a look at what happened under Communism, the utopian dream that many Jews once dreamt – a dream that turned into a collective nightmare.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am going to be looking for it. I understand that it captures the sense that the “actors” in the Communist feature knew that theirs was a dance of death and turned their defeat into a victory. In my family, we did the same. My youngest daughter is named Michaela Sashi, after my cousin Sasha. She’s 8 years old and tough like Sasha. I’m sure she’ll keep up the family tradition of fighting against injustice. But she’s not going to dream her dreams in Romania. She’s dreaming her dreams in a Jewish state.

Click here for more on the bank heist story.

Watch a clip from my film “Charging The Rhino” below:

About the Author
Simcha Jacobovici is a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker and journalist. He is a three-time Emmy winner for “Outstanding Investigative Journalism” and a New York Times best selling author. He’s also an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion at Huntington University, Ontario.