Friday, December 15, 1916
The biggest theft in modern history didn’t occur at a bank. It happened in a train station in the dead of night, under the watchful gaze of armed soldiers.
Amazingly, no one knew it was a robbery until years later.
And by then, the treasure had vanished again.
It was miserably cold as Béla Dobrev left the three-story building where he and his wife lived in a small, second-floor apartment. The streets were empty at this late hour, and the wind from the northeast carried the damp, dreadful smell of the Prut River. He pulled his new wool scarf higher on his face, over his full moustache to the bridge of his nose. He was grateful his wife had given him this Christmas gift early. The winter was unforgiving, the odors of sewage even worse. At least in the summer the winds tended to blow from the south.
From the moment he started out for his evening shift, he walked with his eyes downcast to protect them from the incessant wind. He did not have to look up to walk the three blocks to the sprawling station. He had worked there for over forty years, since the proud, palatial structure had opened in 1870. He knew the cobbled roadways stone by stone. He remembered when a carthorse had stumbled and broken this one, when an axe had fallen from a laborer’s backpack and cracked that one. He remembered it all.
A block from the station, Dobrev smiled beneath the scarf, the bristles of his moustache prickling his upper lip. It was then that he always smelled the first, faint scent of the lubricants used to oil the trains. Crawling under the big locomotives to apply grease to the wheel hubs had been his first job here. That scent invariably took him back to a more innocent era. They were good times, when cities were being united by rail and each new arrival brought a sense of wonder, not dread. When the new year had brought hope and happy reflection, rather than fear of invading armies and the ghastly horrors of war.
Dobrev’s gloved hands held the collar of his worn overcoat to his throat. His newly mended socks kept his heels warm, though his toes were starting to tingle from the cold. He quickened his pace, his eyes narrowing as he heard unfamiliar sounds coming from the tracks. He was accustomed to the clatter of unwieldy crates, to heavy machinery being loaded onto flatbeds by screeching mobile cranes, to the clomping of hooves as horses pulled baggage carts. But he had never heard so many sounds, so much activity, especially this late at night. His mind spun at the thought of the wages the stationmaster would have to pay—but for what?
He looked up and saw rows of canvas-backed military trucks parked nose-in along the platform. That was not unusual: troops in their light-gray uniforms came and went from Iaşi, heading to the frontier. In the late summer they came from Bucharest, but the city was now in German hands. More and more they were returning to Iaşi from combat, along with crowds of refugees fleeing typhus outbreaks. These months since Romania had joined the war were the only time in Dobrev’s married life that he and his wife were glad their only child had moved away. The sorrow in the homes of his neighbors was difficult enough to witness.
Cold as he was, Dobrev did not go straight to the cathedral doorways that fronted the towering facade. His curiosity wouldn’t allow it.
This contingent was different from any he had seen. There were troops just beyond the parked convoy, but they were fresh and facing the street, holding rifles with fixed bayonets across their chests. Beyond them, illuminated by the hooded lamps that lined the platform, a train jutted far beyond both sides of the building. That was unprecedented. The tops of the cars were wrapped in steam from the locomotive. The train was “active,” ready to move at any moment. Given the cost of coal during winter—during wartime—this was most surprising.
Dobrev went to the west side of the terminal where, shielded from the wind, he lowered his scarf and wiped his tearing eyes with his sleeve. He saw boxcar after boxcar, twenty-one in all. On the platform beside them were dozens of crates, stacked in columns, with armed soldiers massed around each, but nowhere on the military train did he see the red, yellow, and blue flag of Romania.
The soldier nearest him took several steps toward him. He wore the insignia of a pigeon messenger. That was unusual too. In four months, Dobrev had never seen those troops as part of a guard detail. They were generally assigned to priority missions.
“What is your business?” the soldier asked curtly. His cheeks were red. They did not look old enough to support a beard.
“I am the assistant stationmaster,” Dobrev told him. “I am beginning my shift.”
“Begin it inside,” the young man told him.
“I’m about to,” Dobrev said. “But I’m wondering—there was nothing about a train this size on the sched—”
“Inside, assistant stationmaster,” the soldier ordered, shifting his rifle nervously so the bayonet was angled downward.
Dobrev’s eyes lingered on the young man a moment longer. Then he raised a gloved hand in surrender, took a last look at the spectacle, and turned away. That exchange had told him more about the war than any of the reports in the newspapers. The situation was desperate when a young Romanian talked to an elder Romanian with no show of respect. Even youths from the capital had better manners.
This boy was tense, afraid.
Dobrev walked back to the front of the station. He noticed that the treads of the trucks were badly worn. This too was an indication that things were going poorly.
What an ill-advised venture, he thought as he neared the door.
Romania had joined the war on the side of Russia, France, and England in order to seize Transylvania from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of the people Dobrev talked to thought that was a waste of men and resources. The population in Transylvania was already largely Romanian. Did it matter who actually owned the high, daunting mountain ranges?
Dobrev stopped abruptly. He saw something on the ground beside one of the bare truck tires, a flash of golden light. He shuffled over and picked it up.
It was a valuable, twenty lei gold coin issued in 1868. Dobrev’s first thought was that it had probably been dropped by a harried passenger. The wealthy often departed by train for day trips to country estates. Mishaps like this occurred when they eagerly pulled gloves from their coats, searched with panic for misplaced tickets, or checked a pocket watch to see if they had time to visit the bar. As a youngster, Dobrev used to supplement his income handsomely with dropped coins. French francs, Turkish lire, and once a silver Russian ruble. Local coins were not as highly prized as foreign coins, which always seemed to be rising in value.
But he had never found a coin of gold.
Feeling a flush of warmth, as if he had just downed a nice plum brandy, he stood and tucked the coin in a pocket that he knew did not have a hole. Then, fueled by his good fortune, he decided to push his luck. Standing just out of view of the soldiers, Dobrev peeled back the corner of the canvas and peered inside the back of the truck. The space was empty, except for two benches along the sides, a few crowbars on the floor, and a pile of bent nails.
The cargo has been opened, but why?
For an official examination? Or something criminal?
As he walked into the station, Dobrev considered the possibilities. Glancing east, he stared at the powerful locomotive. He pondered the significance of the guarded cargo, the pigeon messengers to signal its progress, and the unscheduled departure in the dead of night.
None of this makes sense, unless—
Dobrev stopped and trembled at the thought.
His feeling of good fortune disappeared when he realized that the coin he found was probably a tiny fraction of the contents of the dozens of crates. Vast tons of coins and treasures, all being taken away. The wealth of a nation being removed from his homeland.
The chill he felt as he entered the cavernous waiting area was deeper than any he had felt during his short walk through the winter night.
It was the chill of despair.