Tales of war and treasure

As Russia rattles its saber in Eastern Europe, I was reminded of one of my favorite stories that came from where I least expected it. It came from a neighborhood mom, a friend whose kids went to my school. One day in fall 2003, she mentioned that she and her family had gone to Latvia that summer. Her husband, she explained, is half Latvian and his mother – we’ll call her Sonia – was born there. That alone is interesting, but the tale has just begun.

Because Latvia was part of the Soviet Union until 1993, the trip that summer was only the second time Sonia had been back since her family escaped in 1944. For almost 50 years, Sonia kept her papers and her memories intact. When she finally returned, she was able to prove ownership of a country house that had been confiscated by the Communists so many decades ago.

On this second trip back, her sons came along. While she was just a child in 1944, Sonia clearly remembered seeing her father bury a box next to the house just before the family fled. She had no idea what was in it.

“Sonia walked up to the house, pointed and said, ‘He buried it right there,’” my friend explained.

To everyone’s amazement, a foot or two beneath the ground was a box that had gone undiscovered by Germans, Russians or renters for 60 years. And inside, like the climax of a blockbuster Hollywood movie, was treasure. Loose gemstones — diamonds, rubies and more — various pieces of gold jewelry and even a bar of bullion.

Now that’s a summer vacation to remember. The family returned the next summer and excavated the basement. That time they unearthed bottles of 1940 Martel brandy and cases of champagne.

I was on the edge of my seat asking her a dozen questions, all showing my sad ignorance of Eastern Europe, World War II and Latvia. For those of you equally unaware, the Red Army invaded Latvia in 1939 and stripped citizens like Sonia’s family of their wealth and property. When the Germans arrived in 1941, driving the Russians out, her family was able to recover the country home and restore her father’s business somewhat, but when World War II ended, the Russians marched back in. The family quickly left for Germany, the safest place for them at that time. Sonia’s father died there. She and her mother eventually immigrated to America, where half a century passed before the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet Russia crumbled.

I was particularly moved by an anecdote my friend shared at the end her amazing tale. In the box of treasures was a handful of gold wedding bands. When Sonia saw them, she was beside herself with distress, demanding they be thrown into the nearest river.

They were, she said, rings that her fellow townspeople had been forced to sell to her father in desperation, when all else was gone. Even after 60 years, she wanted no part of those rings or the pain they represented. The story ends with one son planning to renovate the home in Latvia.

With the rise of freedom across the world, three generations were able to go home, find their roots and experience their rich heritage.

That, of course, is the treasure beyond price.

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