Originally set up in Kálvin tér, Róbert bácsi served a hot meal to the victims of the economic crisis caused by World War I and its aftermath – the unemployed, the poor, those repatriated from the territories cut off by the Treaty of Trianon. He convinced the markets and restaurants of Budapest to donate their leftover food to his (eventually four) soup kitchens. Those who were hesitant he convinced by telling them he would arrange to have their names inscribed in Budapest’s ”Golden Book”. Later on, even the military barracks donated their leftovers to him.
The newspapers quickly picked up his story, presenting him as the ”apostle of the poor”. Meanwhile, he recruited young men who could give a convincing spiel to approach the wealthy for monetary donations. When the wife of the Regent donated a thousand pengős, Róbert bácsi’s agents spread the news among the aristocrats, each of whom wanted to outdo the Regent’s wife.
Róbert bácsi was a superb PR man, and was not shy about blowing his own horn, always with the caveat that his own resources were seriously diminishing. That always prompted another outpouring of financial assistance.
Meanwhile, he had rented a posh suite in the Hotel New York in Pest – perhaps comparable to the Waldorf Astoria – and lived the high life, often traveling abroad, which no one thought to investigate. Nor did anyone question where the money came from to pay the cooks, the people who delivered the food and those who served. Until 1930, when he was accused by two brothers of having extended loans to them at the usurious interest rate of 25%.
Then his ”charitable” work began to unravel. It was found that his charity did not extend to the less unfortunate. Providing credit at such high rates, and pocketing the donations made to his soup kitchens, Róbert bácsi became quite wealthy, owning seven apartment houses and two family houses in Budapest, as well as hefty savings accounts in London and Vienna. What’s more, the Budapest ”Golden Book” did not exist!
Since so many wealthy donors, including the Regent’s wife were involved, the matter was handled with the utmost discretion. No charges were put forward, on the trumped up excuse that since he was a Turkish citizen, he could not be called to account. He was merely expelled from Hungary.
He settled in Vienna, and as Onkel Robert opened an office to help the police deal with suicidal people, something he had also done in Budapest before opening the soup kitchens. But the same scenario as in Budapest was repeated in Vienna, where he was found to extend credit to troubled businesses at exorbitant rates.
His Turkish citizenship helped him to survive the persecution of the Jews. He became homeless, having lost his wealth, and finally was taken in by a Viennese woman who gave him a room. He died at 92 in a mental institution, in the mid-fifties.
According to his own words, he did not steal from the poor, always providing them what they needed; he merely managed well ”the crumbs” that the wealthy offered. Nevertheless, he provided a much-needed social service in a time of great poverty.
viola vonfi is our correspondent from Stamford, CT. She finds it amusing that one of her ancestors was knighted by Wallenstein during the Thirty Years’ War.