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Small Talk: History unearthed

Every writer loves nothing more than a great story, but I didn’t expect one of the best I’ve heard to come from a neighborhood mom, whose kids went to my school and who spent her days doing the same mundane things most suburban mothers do.

Then one day in fall 2003, she mentioned that she and her family had gone to Latvia that summer. Her husband is Latvian and his mother, Sonia, was born there.

Because Latvia, which borders Russia, was part of the Soviet Union until 1993, the trip that summer of 2003 was only the second time Sonia had been back since her family escaped in 1944.

Since the war, 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 her 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 said.

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 Martell cognac and cases of champagne.

Now 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 in Europe at that time. Sonia’s father died there. She and her mother eventually came 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 tale. Sonia and her family may not have been victimized by the Nazis, but the suffering came from many directions. In that 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 brother 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.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who knows the value of her freedom. Contact her at [email protected].

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