My Short, Sweet Banking Career Leads to An Unexpected Intelligence Opportunity
Tales of a Teenage Spy - Chapter 42 - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Photo: It's still there today, although much modernised - Josef Haydn watches out of the corner of his eye on the OTP Branch on Alagút utca, our hero's first customer-facing banking workplace.
The First District OTP branch on Alagút utca was special in at least two ways: it was one of just three branches at the time where customers could hold 'hard-currency' accounts, ie accounts denominated in western currencies such as US dollars, Deutschmarks, French francs and the like.
It was also located in what, at that time, was a des-res building, known then (and still today) as the 'Lotto ház' because it was built, as far as I know sometime in the sixties by OTP Bank, which at that time was also responsible for Szerencsejáték, the state gambling company. This was the only gambling organisation permitted in the Kádár era, and for a time the weekly lottery jackpot was usually a car (manufactured in the eastern bloc, of course). But once this building was erected, you could sometimes win a brand new flat - a genuinely sensational jackpot in those days.
In addition, 'important' party functionaries and some celebrities, such as football players, actors and the like, were allocated flats in the new high rise building, and almost all had accounts at our branch. However, the only one I clearly remember today was the widow of Béla Bartók. She had several hard currency accounts and, as I understood, could travel anywhere, any time to represent Hungarian culture.
But to my mind, these flats were a nice set of carrots offered by the 'caring communist' state to buy popularity (and time) for itself using OTP, backed by public savings.
But as for my true mission, working for the Americans, to be honest I didn't think there would be anything worthy to report from this job.
But I was soon proved wrong.
Now as part of the regular 'good-housekeeping' practice, at the bank we conducted quarterly reviews of all accounts. Soon into my first review, I noticed that there was a separate batch of files – there were no computers at that time - all marked with the letter 'V', of accounts in US dollars held by Hungarians. What's more, the credit transfers were, without exception, all from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We had something like 50 or 60 of these accounts, and I was puzzled as to what this all about.
Not long after, a colleague let on: these were for Hungarians designated as United Nations peacekeepers in Vietnam, sent there after the signing of the grandly named Paris Peace Accords early in 1973. (Accords which communist North Vietnam at that time was blatantly ignoring in its determination to conquer the south.)
This was a stroke of luck, because I was certain that practically all had to be military intelligence officers who could be expected to turn up later as attaches, possibly even ambassadors, at Hungarian embassies around the world. In fact, since they were the "elite" in their day due to their knowledge of foreign languages, it was obvious most were well set for stellar careers.
I was also sure that whatever they reported to their United Nations superiors about Vietnam – indeed probably more - would also soon find its way to their Soviet colleagues.
Since these account reviews usually meant we had to work overtime to meet deadlines, one evening I simply copied out the names on the 'V' accounts, and sent them to Washington in my next message. The Americans greatly appreciated this unexpected windfall.
(As it happens, I have since got to know one of these peacekeepers, a retired general and university lecturer, who shortly after Vietnam became a military attaché to the US in Washington. He is exceptionally intelligent and speaks several languages fluently.)
I was kept pretty busy at the bank because of my language skills. Not many other staff spoke English, and I was the sole Arabic speaker. Whenever we had an Arab client in the branch, several of the women colleagues would typically gather round because it was sensational in their eyes that their new, young colleague spoke the language.
Otherwise, to be honest, it was fairly boring work. The job did have its eventful spots, however.
After about three months, I was transferred to the downtown Deák Ferenc utca branch, another of the three offering foreign currency facilities.
Now every week, hard-currency, in cash, had to be transferred from National Bank to the OTP treasury. (Hungary, like all communist states, was always short of foreign exchange, and the government kept tight control over every cent and pfennig.)
One day, I was charged with this move, but it turned out that the company van usually used to transport the money was unavailable.
What to do? Since I was already at the bank, had done all the paperwork and with two guards, members of the munkásőrség - the workers' militia – both armed with kalashnikovs to deter any attempted robbery (or me running off with the dosh), I opted for the obvious: take the bus.
Mind you, there wasn't much chance of me or anyone escaping by foot with two cases stuffed with cash, each weighing 30 kg or so.
Unfortunately I can't remember the value, though it was more than a small forutne. We had to count and get the whole lot signed for once we arrived at the bank. Sixty kilogrammes, all in Swiss francs, US dollars, Deutschmarks and pound sterling: it was the first, and last time that I had so much money in my hands.
It was of course against all rules, but nobody asked any questions, and since I'm sure we would have been severely punished, all the three of us, if management had learnt that we used public transport instead of the regular armoured van, we naturally kept mum.
I forget how long I was with OTP, but I did another stint at the branch in Karinthy Frigyes út, District XI. While there, a friend of mine from Medimpex (another foreign trade company) told me that business with the Middle East was growing quickly, so there were good opportunities for Arab speakers, and I could ask for a considerable raise compared to my salary at the bank.
I could also make good use of what I had learnt at the bank and I could ditch a job where I had no chance of promotion thanks to my affair with the girlfriend of my immediate superior.
Foreign trade had always interested me more than banking and money, so it was a timely change in any case.