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Criminal’s life stranger than fiction

Whiskey Robber’s ballad a page-turner

By Leigh E. Rich

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts
By Julian Rubinstein
Little, Brown and Company
September 2004
304 pages
$23.95 ($34.95 CAN)

Perhaps few in the United States know much about Hungary, a landlocked republic located between Austria and Romania in Central Europe. Home to historical leaders Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler, Hungary is more recently known as the birthplace of “the Rubik’s cube … nuclear fission, the carburetor, the croissant”—and one of the world’s most famous bank robbers.

More like a farcical Hollywood plot than a slice of modern history, the story of Attila Ambrus, deftly recounted in Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, is an all-too-real political fairy tale more akin to the Brothers Grimm than Mother Goose.

Rubinstein situates this nearly inconceivable tale of a Transylvanian-born gravedigger-slash-hockey player turned bank robber within the context of Hungarian history and world politics.

Divided into “three periods” plus “overtime,” Rubinstein spends part of the first period explaining Hungary’s trials in the 20th century, with its repeated periods of occupation and eventual struggles to thrive in a free-market system.

Despite a modernized capital city that boasted of Europe’s first subway system, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after World War I, with Transylvania ceded to Romania. Though the Germans promised to return Transylvania to Hungary during World War II, Hitler instead decided to occupy its ally. In 1945, the Soviets “rescued” Hungary from the Nazis, taking over the country and installing communist rule from Moscow. At the time, “Hungary became part of the western hem in the Iron Curtain.”

It was this environment, Rubinstein illustrates, that gave birth to the bank robber. And growing up as a Hungarian outcast under Nicolae Ceausescu’s abusive Romanian rule, it’s not difficult to understand how Ambrus emerged as one of Hungary’s most successful criminals—and most beloved folk heroes.

But make no mistake, Rubinstein’s Ballad never borders on a lackluster history lesson, nor does his attention to political injustices ever interrupt the fiction-like flow of Ambrus’ story.

Like any parable with a moral to be learned, the Denver-raised Rubinstein opens his well-researched nonfiction piece with a dramatis personae—a cast of characters that includes the outlandish and the seemingly sinister such as “Jenö ‘Bubu’ Salamon: Defense, trouble”; “Uncle Béla: Chango Pelt King”; and “George Pék: Forward, UTE player-coach, twenty-four-hour mini-mart owner.”

Even Ambrus is described as “aka the Whiskey Robber: Goalie, church painter, gravedigger, animal-pelt smuggler, serial bank robber, folk hero,” rounding out a list of players more likely found in a Monty Python or Coen Brothers’ movie.

Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

But there’s nothing funny about Ambrus’ life tale, despite the bittersweet comedy Rubinstein conveys in his book that spans much of the 1990s, when Hungary held its first multiparty elections and initiated a free-market economy.

Ballad opens with a jailbreak, with Ambrus escaping custody using “rope made from the strips of four sets of bedsheets, shoelaces from three pairs of sneakers, and thick strands torn from two towels.”

But the 1999 breakout, after nearly six years and with more than two dozen robberies under his belt, wasn’t the first time Ambrus made a mockery of the Budapest police force.

In fact, beginning in 1993, Ambrus quickly became an obsession for Lajos Várjú, then chief of the Budapest Police department’s robbery division. Spending perhaps the better part of his professional years trying to catch the elusive “Lone Wolf” bank robber, as Várjú came to call Ambrus, Várjú would come close to ensnaring the “former gravedigger who managed to make 26 desperate, booze-fueled heists look like performance art.”

Making matters worse for the one true hero in this twisted tale, both Várjú and Ambrus knew the robbery chief was floundering in a sea of incompetent and underpaid police officers. And at the time, there were “1,200 openings at the Budapest police.”

“You were the only true professional at the police,” Ambrus once said of Várjú.

For his part—after escaping Romania and attempting several times to build a legitimate life in Hungary—Ambrus took what he rationalized as a temporary profession quite seriously, developing a detailed playbook with a “Degree of Difficulty” rating system for the banks and post offices he robbed; investing in a variety of disguises; and spending his cache only after a three-week waiting period, so as to not stir up any suspicions. He was, after all, “the best-paid unpaid hockey goalie in a filthy rich slum town” who was known to own hand-me-down underwear.

Like something from the silver screen, the seriousness with which Ambrus approached bank robbing made the Lone Wolf and Várjú equally matched arch nemeses.

Underneath all of the action and intrigue that makes Ballad nothing short of a page-tuner, however, there is a subtle commentary on corruption and capitalism in the Hungarian setting.

The so-called free-market gave tax breaks to foreign companies; allowed casinos, smuggling and the mafia to flourish; and more or less created the “Whiskey Robber”—the nickname given to Ambrus by the host of the TV show Kriminalis. In fact, “under communism, when the state controlled the media, a popular criminal was an impossibility.”

As Rubinstein writes: The “American conglomerates that had swarmed into the city and taken over the downtown office buildings paid no taxes for doing business in Hungary, but they were happy to offer worse health benefits, less vacation time, and expect far higher productivity than Hungarians’ previous employer, the state, had.”

Even Ambrus rationalized his bank-robbing profession in the wake of corruption at much higher levels. “You know, we’re robbing the state but the state is robbing us.”

Despite all of this, back in Washington in 1996, a gala was held at the Kennedy Center “celebrating Hungary’s 1,100th anniversary and its smooth transition to a model democracy.”

But ever the gentleman criminal, all Ambrus wanted since he first arrived in Budapest was Hungarian citizenship and a chance to build a life of distinction.

With a total of 29 robberies—only two of which were unsuccessful—that amassed an estimated total of 196 million Forints (about $800,000)—routinely lost to reckless spending, drinking and gambling—the Whiskey Robber remains anything but irrelevant.

Rich, L. E. (2004, October 29). Criminal’s life stranger than fiction. [Review of the book Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts by Julien Rubenstein.] Rocky Mountain News.

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