“Like a sausage they’ve cut open” – A visit to the Whiskey Robber

The Hungarian folk hero Attila Ambrus committed twenty-nine robberies of post offices, travel agencies and banks during 1993 and 1999. First twenty-seven, then two more after a jail break. Always drunk off his ass (whiskey) and mostly well-mannered, he became a Whiskey Robber after initially making headlines as a Gentleman Robber. He didn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor, but squandered the dough at the roulette table, but what the hell. You gotta start somewhere. In 2022 Ambrus will celebrate ten years of release from prison and his 55th birthday. Jessica Kreiger and Roland van Oystern visited him at his estate in Esztergom near Budapest.

In the enchanting book “The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber”, American writer Julian Rubinstein tells Ambrus’ true story of ice hockey, Transylvanian fur smuggling, bank robberies and broken hearts. Attila Ambrus had to experience all that nonsense for himself first. That’s good for us. We get to just sit and listen or read about it. What was possible in Budapest in the ’90s! For six years the Whiskey Robber held the lawmen to ransom. While the chief inspector of police schooled himself on his own with “Columbo” VHS tapes, the rest of the squad sat in the pub next to the police station out of sheer perplexity. All sorts of investigative possibilities, such as fingerprinting, had already been invented, only nobody knew how to do it. But desperation also gives you ideas! After a series of robberies of travel agencies, the Budapest police set up a fake travel agency in the audacious hope that the Whiskey robber would soon rob it. After his fifteenth robbery on August 29, 1996, also of a travel agency, but a different one, the authorities were at a peak of police desperation, whereupon a special commissioner was sent in secret to seek out Józsi Barát, the most famous clairvoyant in Hungary at the time. Józsi Barát vowed to keep quiet about this incident for the rest of his life. Things were not good for the banks either. “Back then the banks were very poorly equipped in terms of security, I think Hungary’s banks today would never be as safe as they are today if it wasn’t for me,” says Whiskey Robber Attila Ambrus in his gazebo, pouring us more beer. “Drink before it gets warm!”

Sometimes it was a close call. The Whiskey Robber got lucky once in a while. For example, the day the cops mistakenly stormed the building next to the bank. Or the time he got tangled in a rose bush while fleeing and didn’t regain consciousness until hours later, at night, with a torn money bag beside him, in silence and peace, the sirens long since faded. “The bars near the banks, I was practically always getting my courage up there, as they say, so I’d have a few shots at one bar, then a whole bottle of whiskey at the next, once I fell asleep in a bank and when I woke up the guns were pressing into my stomach, so that didn’t work that one time because I was too twatted.” Occasionally, he would squirrel away his very last coins at the coin slot machine just before robbing the pub. “I was a gambling addict and I blew a lot of money and I loved broads and I love exotic places, I’ve been to almost eighty countries. And I thought it was illogical to build a house or something, because things like that could be taken away from me, so I squandered it and lived.”

He gets more beer and Romanian Palinka, and offers us to sleep in the Kazakh yurt in case we get too drunk … We drink the liquor, he pours us extra more and pours more beer. He tells his wife Réka to get some more beer. We all go to the toilet. Back in the bower, Roland asks about the pictures with the tanks and Réka on them that he spotted on the wall along the way. “For Réka’s 30th birthday I got her a Tiger Tanker, a replica that weighs only 40 tons instead of the original, 80 tons. I got it from a museum and she ended up driving it and she did well.” The two met at a market. The two frequent markets often. Attila offers self-designed ceramics, Réka handmade bags. “Funnily enough, she already had the same last name.” Now the two are married with two little daughters tumbling through the garden. “Being a father has changed me incredibly, because now the centre of my life is not myself, but the children. I’m busy with them from morning till night and my little one, the older one, is very demanding and likes to speak her mind, that’s what I like about her.” He compares his daughter to Hitler. Hitler comparisons appeal to us, of course. And children are indeed a lot like dictators, as well as vice versa. Dogs scurry around, too. “They’re very obedient.”

Jessica Kreiger in conversation with Attila Ambrus

Attila Ambrus in his gazebo, Esztergom 2022

It started with ceramics 16 years ago. “I learned it in prison, I also finished school there. I’ve been living here (in the mountains of Esztergom) with my wife for six years now, before that we rented an apartment and after some time we were able to buy this very house and also the workshop where I make my ceramics. I also have a second workshop where ceramics are made, in a suburb of Budapest, and there I have three employees.” On the pottery drinking vessels see 67%. Maybe it’s a target. We fail to ask. Some of the beautiful motifs are drawn from life, for example the double-A emblem made from hockey sticks (Attila Ambrus was a goalie on Romanian and Hungarian teams), along with his motto: BÁRMIT CSINÁLSZ, AZT CSINÁLDJÓL! (WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT WELL!) There’s also a motif of the whiskey thief. All available at markets, but also on the internet: Grab it! … and best give it together with Julian Rubinstein’s wonderful tome to someone nice.

How do you actually feel about Julian Rubinstein’s book? Do you like the book? “There are two sides to the story. First of all, Julian Rubinstein worked on the book for three years, he publishes articles for the New York Times, Rolling Stone et cetera, so this is a good writer. In terms of the story, the way he wrote it, I don’t have a problem, everything fits, but it’s the moral aspect that I have a problem with. Julian Rubinstein got $800,000 for the book, but I got $1,000 and a pair of sneakers. So he pretty much stabbed me in the back with it. When I signed the contract, I didn’t know any English and I still barely do. Likewise, he sold the translated interview he did with me back then to Warner Brothers for 5 kilos, I didn’t get any of that at all, he’s just a good business man.” US actor Johnny Depp has secured the film rights. “Yes, Johnny has bought the film rights, however he has been excluded from the planning and everything, also because of his bad reputation at the moment in the public, his sister Christina Depp has bought the translated interview and the two of them, so Johnny and his sister, have the rights and everything in their hands, which means if a film comes about from them, then they would have to contact me and negotiate a contract et cetera. The question is whether that will come about at all though, I don’t know, maybe after I’m dead, so that’s out of my hands as to whether anything will come of it or not.”

The apple grove of the Whiskey Robber. From the apples he makes juice, for example.

A script for a Hollywood adaptation already exists. East Bay punk rocker and screenwriter Rich Wilkes wrote it. A few days before our visit to the robber, he wrote to us in response to our inquiry about the status of the project, saying that he still loves it so much and that he’d still trying to get it made, and also that he’d be interested to know who Attila thought should play the Whiskey Robber in the Hollywood adaptation, Adam Driver? “Adam Driver? Never heard of him. The thing is, I’m not a film producer and I have no idea who would be suitable, it’s up to the producer to decide. Mainly also because it would need a young actor. But if you asked me, Al Pacino would be a choice for me because he’s my favorite actor, but he is obviously too old, so from there, like I said, an experienced film producer can decide that best.”

From 2017 there is a Hungarian feature film production by Hungarian-American filmmaker Nimród Antal (screenplay and director): “A Viszkis” (“The Whiskey Bandit”). It is the second most viewed Hungarian film. “The first most seen film is Kincsem, which is about a horse.” Kincsem means something like schatzi (which means something like sweetie). “That one cost 3 billion forints (about 7.5 million dollars) and mine cost half that, so 1.5 billion forints (3.75 million dollars).” In the Whiskey Robber movie, Attila makes a cameo appearance as a taxi driver because many of the escapes after the robberies were made in taxis. It is the most beautiful moment in the film.

Like a final score for the ages, Whiskey Robber fans spray-painted the number of Attila’s robberies versus his number of arrests on the wall of the apartment building in which he did during his escape. From “The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” by Julian Rubinstein (Little, Brown, 2004)

In his acknowledgement at the end of “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” Julian Rubinstein writes that he’d love to have a drink with Attila Ambrus. It hasn’t come to that yet. “No, but if I ever run into him somewhere, I’m going to cut his ears off, because the Slovaks published the book too, there was a launch of the book there and they wanted to invite him and I was invited there too, but he didn’t come, if I saw him I would definitely beat him up.” From Esztergom, you can cross a bridge and you’re in Slovenia. For a moment we consider whether “Julian gets his ears cut off” might be a good headline for our essay, Attila has no opinion on this, but later we also ask Rubinstein what he thinks of them … “… well, I guess I won’t be going to see him. It’s been a huge bummer to hear those things of course. I worked for four years on the book for less than $50K, and tried to get Attila into the film option but he’d already signed a deal with someone else. In any case, sorry he feels that way. I think / hope the book has helped him in other ways.” At least it earned him our visit. Attila pours more beer and Palinka. Always twice as much for us as for himself. A professional.

Ceramic products

As a child, Attila Ambrus loved to read about Ronny Biggs, who was also on TV. “About sixty to seventy years ago he did one of the best, or rather most blatant robberies, the Great Train Robbery, and he escaped from prison and Scotland Yard was looking for him, et cetera, and then he went to Brazil, where he had a child, and so they couldn’t hand him over. So I think he’s a genius. But he did get away with a few million dollars. He was on TV a lot and he also made money doing a lot of interviews et cetera, kind of like me.” Ambrus has looted a total of 195,745,000 forints (the 1999 exchange rate according to 775,000 dollars) through his robberies. Our interview deal is to buy ceramic products for 200 euros/dollars. (Jessica and Roland don’t have to worry about Christmas 2022!)

1999 popular T-Shirt. BM is the abbreviation for the Belugium Ministerium, or Interior Ministry, the goverment branch in charge of the police. From “The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” by Julian Rubinstein (Little, Brown, 2004)

Legal professions came to nothing with Attila Ambrus, for example as a gravedigger, where the unfavorable combination of endless digging and a similar amount of booze could sometimes lead to the pit being too small for the box the next day. Makes bad vibes at a funeral, no doubt! First crime attempts as a teenager in Romania (spectacular escape from this country in the 80s, clinging under a moving train, over a distance of 25 miles), were not crowned by particularly good success. Together with a few others he stole musical instruments from a school and advertised them in the local paper afterwards. The mischief earned him two years of juvenile detention. In his novel “Haramia” (2015), he writes about this time: “More than once I saw the skinny, scared boys blowing the big boys. It made my stomach turn. The scenario was simple: the older bastard would point out the target and demand him to his bed at night, where he would stick his cock in his mouth. If the poor guy resisted, he’d get the shit kicked out of him. And in the showers, they kept those they wanted to fuck in the ass. There was no escape.
“What’s ‘Haramia’ about? “Haramia is about an exaggerated version of myself. It’s basically about the plans I made in my head, evil things I planned to implement, and I express those in this book. It’s obviously fiction, but I was at one point planning to implement this, I was going to put a lot of people in the ground and hunt them down, so I wanted serious stuff, and in my head I had that planned, but I didn’t have the right people to implement it.” In the preface, he writes, “The image you often see is wrong. I’m smiling in photos, making smooth declarations in interviews, while secretly planning new actions to get rich again. Because money motivates me, money moves me, money makes me ruthless.” The literary equivalent of his most loyal accomplice, Gábor Orbán (thirteen joint robberies), is cut down by the cops in the final pages. Gabi, also known as the “little whiksey robber,” published an autobiography a year later, in 2016, with the cute title “A Viszkis és ÉN” (“The Whiskey Robber and ME”). “Gabi, he’s in England working as a cleaner, when the film came out he contacted me and wanted a piece of the pie, I said to him to talk to the film producer who told him to go to hell, he’s hated me ever since. And when he published the book, well, there are a lot of half-truths in there, well, some things are true, but he also interpreted a lot of things and added false things so that the book would sell, because he didn’t get anything from the film.”

Attila Ambrus’ last big arrest at the end of 1999 brought him to Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary’s safest prison. He didn’t have to do without whiskey even there. At least not at first. “My ex, Eva, put alcohol in the fabric softener, she put the alcohol in a plastic bag, sealed it in the fabric softener, and put the fabric softener back in the bottle. Thus, I still had whiskey in there as well. However, they caught me and since then that no longer worked. They’ve partially ransacked and searched my whole cell, they’ve looked in my toothbrush to see if there was anything hidden there, my food, like a sausage they’ve cut open, all that kind of stuff.”

In order not to be exposed to the usual prison food, Attila converted to the Islamic faith during his imprisonment. As a result, he was the only one who was cooked separately. “I am not a fan of religion, neither the Catholic Church et cetera. These people do bad things in the name of religion and that is incompatible for me. The Catholic faith has wiped out so many civilizations and even today in the Vatican I think bad things happen, speaking of child abuse, sexual abuse et cetera. I hate it, I tolerate anyone who is religious, and to each his own too, but to me it is nothing. Marx said “religion is the opium of the people”, and everyone needs some kind of support in life, but I don’t want to be a part of any religion. God has shat on my head long enough. I converted to the Muslim faith then because it gave me quality food, such as eggs, bundás kenyér (bread breaded with egg/French toast), beef, I put a spoke to the prison’s wheel. The doctor in the prison was also from Transylvania and she sympathized with me and we got along well, so she practically put it on, or rather let it pass, that for seven years the prison cooked fresh food only for me, and no one else received that.”

Attila got 15 years at his trial, bumped up to 17 at a retrial. One of his cellmates had received 13 years for beheading and setting someone on fire. “In Hungary there are precedents, so he got 13 years, but if someone messes with the government, then there can be heavy penalties. They were looking for me for six years and they didn’t know anything about me.  So even a murderer they wouldn’t give 17 years, but they just hated me and wanted to punish me hard. The police and the government hated me, I practically screwed them for six years.”

Because of good behavior and all, Whiskey Robber Attila Ambrus walked free after 13 years.

Roland: “You once said you’d try crime again for 50 million forints.”

Attila: “Yes, but being a criminal is not an easy job, today I wouldn’t do it anymore, 200 million, minimum (jokes). But I’m too old for it and I have children, such being the case.”

Jessica: “What was the first thing you did after you got out of jail?”

Attila: “I fucked every woman within a radius of one meter (laughs). After all, I hadn’t had sex in 13 years. So the first thing I did was meet a lot of women and have sex.”

Attila asks if Roland has ever been to jail.

Roland says he’s harmless to the max.

Attila asks if Roland ever stole anything.

No, nothing serious.

He pours us more beer, he urges us to keep drinking.

We’ll have another shot.

Van Oystern is acclimatizing

Roland asks where the “Tipi” is. Attila says: “It is a yurt, 500 meters from here. My wife Réka built it because she had a Buddhist education and wanted it. She likes to meditate in the yurt, and it’s a place to relax and introspect, and the children also like to be there to play et cetera. We also have apple trees on the property, sometimes I harvest two tons of apples and we process that into apple juice and it’s also organic and everything. There is also a house where I keep alcohol, wine and pork in the cellar, because I also slaughter pigs from time to time and smoke the meat. So I have a lot of different incomes. I also offer excursion days, or group education days for companies. They come and visit me, I bake bread, grill meat, we go into the yurt, I give lectures and we drink Palinka and make ceramics. Two years ago Pfizer came to visit me, there were about 40 people there, they all sat down in the yurt, it was fun. And that was just before Corona. They had a group formation day, that’s what companies do to bring their team together more. I also get visited by Tesco (supermarket) quite often. And I also get invited to give talks, to companies, motivational talks. I also talk a lot about how I built a new life for myself after prison and that interests a lot of people. And I have no problem at all being honest, revealing my mistakes and talking about what I have experienced. Because I didn’t learn all this from any books, these are my own experiences and I successfully built a new life for myself and learned a lot from my mistakes. Because I got out of jail with 30,000 forints, which is about 80 dollars, so I had nothing and no one waiting for me. –

So!” says Attlia, “do you want another beer, or shall we start for the yurt?”

We’re huming and hawing a bit. Actually, it’s great to sleep in the yurt of the Whiskey Robber. You don’t get that kind of invitation every day. So we agree. Attila: “I’ll order you a pizza! And coke. And beer.” Jessica points out our veganism. “Oh,” Attila says, “I thought Roland was a little skinny.”

Until the arrival of the delivery service, we gurgle away a bit and buy in the ceramic workshop. The pizza is on the house, although we want to pay, and bang it’s off in the jeep. Attila’s driving. Up here, in the mountains of Esztergom, it is possible without a driving licence. The short way we get a nice wave from all kinds of people. It’s really nice here. In the pork cellar there are no pigs at the moment, but a bottle of Demonerovka (or something like that). We let it go around. Last round with the Whiskey Robber! There’s a gecko living in the yurt. There are whips, funny hats and children’s toys in there. We say goodbye with many thanks to Attila Ambrus. He’s all right, this Whiskey Robber. A real gentleman.

Interview: Jessica Kreiger und Roland van Oystern

Thanks also to: Veronika Ronai (for arranging it), Réka Ambrus (for driving us from the station and back), Julian Rubinstein (for his willingness to communicate and, of course, the opus!), Rich Wilkes (for being Rich Wilkes) and Thorsten Nagelschmidt (for drawing attention to the “Ballad”).

About this clip: The Whiskey Robber and Ganxsta Zolee at the Sziget Festival 2012. In a play about the Whiskey Robber, which was still performed at the time of the robberies, Zana József Sándor, Ganxsta Zolee’s dad, played him. Attila himself sat in the audience and had a great time.

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