Once they boarded the ferry to Helsinki early the next morning, Aila had the feeling that they were being watched again. She kept Jolene and Minna close, and did not tell them – both out of concern for Jolene’s nerves and out of fear that Minna might pull her shotgun out of the ever-present suitcase by her side. She hoped that the disembarking procedure would put their watchers behind them, and make it impossible to catch their tail once they were on the ground in Tallinn.
Unfortunately, by the time they made it past Old Town, Aila knew they were being tailed. She was left with the big decision – evade now, and make their way to Celmiņi farm on the back roads, starting by taking the ring road to the highway to Tartu, or head directly south in the direction of Riga without making any evasive actions, and hope that their pursuers got comfortable enough coasting along that they wouldn’t notice an evasive maneuver later on.
Keeping her eyes ahead, she voiced her options to the others. Jolene became a bundle of frazzled nerves, but Minna was direct.
“Go in the direction of Riga. It is much more likely that they will get bored and complacent in the drive that you’ll be able to evade them more easily later on.”
So it was decided. Aila was hoping that the bright sun would hold for the rest of the day – Aila had been down this highway before, and she knew that the sun could reflect off the asphalt and make driving difficult. She had brought her sunglasses, but she hoped their pursuers did not, as this would give her more breathing room.
She knew the road that she was going to take. It was just south of Parnu, and with any luck a traffic light or three in Parnu could help them out to put some extra distance between them and their pursuers.
They did indeed lose their tail in Parnu, and once outside the city limits, Aila stepped on the gas, accelerating towards the junction before their tail could catch up. She eased off on the gas as she took the turn, and stepped back on it as soon as the road straightened out again. She kept a close eye on the rearview mirror, and did not see any other cars behind her for a number of kilometres, and when she did finally see cars, they were not the tail car she had seen before, and changed frequently as drivers turned off and on into the different villages along the way.
They crossed the Latvian-Estonian border in early afternoon. The trio ate lunch in Valka, and continued along towards the Celmiņi farm.
“Now what are we going to do when we get there?” Jolene asked. “This might be someone’s home. They’re going to think we’re crazy.”
“They won’t.” Minna said firmly. “I’m sure Papa had plans in place. He didn’t know how long this would have taken, so he had to have a plan.”
Aila was unsure, but as long as Minna remained committed to the chase, so was she.
As they drove into the driveway of Celmiņi farm, Aila knew at once that it was occupied. There was an old barn, but the dwelling house was new. A wisp of smoke came out of the chimney. Once they pulled in, they saw a middle-aged man come out of the house.
Aila addressed him in Latvian. “Sveiki! Kā klājās?” Hello! How are you?
“Labi, ko Jūs ceļotāji šeit dariet?” Good, what are you travelers doing here? He must have seen the Finnish license plate.
Aila detected a familiar accent. It was not the Latvian accent she was used to hearing on the streets of Riga or other Latvian towns. It was the accent she grew up speaking in Canada, the accent spoken by Latvian emigres of the Second World War era. He had grown up in the West.
She decided to take a gamble. “Mēs meklējam Latvijas vērtību.” We are looking for Latvia’s wealth.
“And that brings you here?” The man switched to unaccented English, confirming her hunch, looking at the other two women in the car and their quizzical looks.
“Yes. And my feeling is you know why.” She saw his eyes flit over to Minna.
He sighed. “I do. Please, come inside.”
The three women went inside. Minna was still clutching her suitcase, refusing the man’s attempts to take it for her.
“Please, sit.” He showed them to the table. “My name is Aigars Dzintarnieks. My father was Ojārs Dzintarnieks, an associate of President Karlis Ulmanis.”
“You were born in the West.”
“I was. My father went to the United States in 1939. I was born in New York in 1949. He left Latvia before the war, carrying a big secret.”
“But you came back.”
“Of course. My father had told me the stories growing up. I had to see for myself. But he also told me to wait. To wait until the heir came. Are one of you the heir?”
“I suppose I am.” Minna said, sitting up straight. “Minna Grieta Veisbergs, maiden name Ulmanis.”
“The President was your father? How? When?”
“I was born in Nebraska in 1909, while he was a student there. He kept me a secret from everyone in Latvia. Planning for a situation – well, a situation like this.”
“So you’ve come to reclaim the wealth of the nation. I’m sure you know that the economic situation here is not great. Otherwise I would have been inclined to return it myself.”
“We’re not giving it to the government. We’re going to put it to use where it is most necessary.”
Aigars nodded. “That was my hope.”
“Do you know the other… keepers, I suppose?” Aila asked.
“No. My father never talked about them, though I suppose he probably knew. It could be that I grew up right alongside their heirs as well, and we never knew it.”
“Do you think they would have returned as well?”
“I think it is quite likely, yes. Do you want to see it?”
“Well, we’ve come all this way, it would be silly not to.” Jolene said.
Aigars led the women out to the barn. He had just begun brushing the floor of the barn when they heard another car pulling into the driveway.
Aila looked at Aigars. “Expecting anyone?”
He shook his head slowly, eyes on the door. Aila edged towards the side of the barn to peek through the cracks in the walls. It appeared that their tail had found them after all. She saw three large men get out of the car and approach the barn. She moved behind the door, hoping that she could get the element of surprise on them as they came in.
As they got to the door, Aila swung the door hard and slammed it shut, clocking the lead man in the nose. She heard him swear in Russian as she and Aigars put the bar across the door.
“There is no way out!” one of the men yelled with a thick Russian accent. “The gold belongs to us!”
“Keep dreaming.” Aila responded.
She heard a click nearby, then a smooth voice. “You will give it to us.” This voice had an American accent. As she turned, she recognized the reading room attendant from the Love Library, holding a gun to Jolene’s head. Aila saw a hole in the far barn wall, where he must have crawled in while their attention was on the other three men. Aigars was standing with his hands up. Minna was nowhere to be seen. Had he taken her out already?
“Now. Slowly. Remove that bar and let my friends in. You think I didn’t see what you were working on? We’ve been waiting too long for this.”
Aila and Aigars removed the bar, and the other three men came in the door. The lead man shoved Aila and Aigars to their knees and the other two tied their hands behind their backs.
“This is important day.” The lead man said. “I am Bogdan. My grandfather was one of men sent to secure Latvian bank when we first came to protect you from the Nazis.”
“Occupied, you mean.” Aila retorted, earning her a cuff to the side of the head.
“But when he get there, it was empty. There was supposed to be gold. What to do now? They had to tell Stalin no gold. Stalin was not happy.”
“It wasn’t his to take.” Aigars said, and one of the henchmen sent him sprawling into the dirt.
“It belonged to the Soviet Union. But grandfather and the rest of the soldiers in the unit were shamed for not bringing the gold back. My family lives with that shame. We come to fix that.”
“There is no Soviet Union anymore. Give it up.” Aila said.
Bogdan hauled her up by the neck and pinned her to the wall. “It belongs to Russia! Everything here belongs to Russia. We restore honour! Russia has been laughed at for too long. This gold will bring glory back to our people.”
Aila spat in his face and kicked him in the crotch. He released her and fell to the ground. The gunman swung around to aim at Aila, but she moved out of the way just in time, feeling the bullet whiz by and embed itself in the wood behind her. Then she heard a new spray of gunfire, this time coming from behind a pile of crates. The gunman and the other two henchmen were dropped to the ground by the gunfire that hit them in the kneecaps.
Jolene grabbed the gunman’s gun and tossed it away. Minna emerged from behind the crates, shotgun in hand, and approached Bogdan, putting her small foot on his windpipe and aiming the shotgun at his face.
“This gold will restore OUR country’s pride and joy – its people. Its spirit. I feel for the ordinary Russians who suffer under your government, but that is for your people to fix. Not for you to steal from others. Latvia was occupied. That is what happened. Your Soviets destroyed the country and oppressed its people. Now we are free again. And we intend to stay that way. No more are we going to be under the yoke of a foreign government. We want peace. Freedom. Justice.”
Minna kept her foot on Bogdan’s windpipe while Jolene untied Aila and Aigars, using the bonds to tie up the three henchmen. A last piece of rope was saved for Bogdan, and once his men were tied up, Minna released him and tied his arms behind his back as well.
Aigars went inside to call the police. He returned quickly, and picked up his broom as nothing had happened. It took a few minutes, but soon a trapdoor was revealed. He beckoned the women over.
“Here it is.”
He opened the trapdoor, which creaked with age. The three of them peeked inside, and saw a vast store of gold bars stretching out the length of the barn. Minna picked one up and hefted it in her hand.
“Looks like the ones I have at home,” Minna said. “They’re real.”
She brought it over to Bogdan and showed him the Latvian coat of arms stamped on the bar.
“See? Latvia. Instead of spending your life watching and waiting to steal from others, you should work on your own country. Make it better. Maybe you can start that while you’re in prison.”
Bogdan was silent. Fifteen minutes later, several police cars pulled into Aigars’ driveway and he led them into the barn, explaining the situation. None of the four mentioned the other stashes hidden across the country. Not yet. There was no telling of who the police officers were.
The officers marveled over the stash of gold bars, and put the four Russians in the back of the police cars. They got in touch with the Bank of Latvia and the History Museum. By sundown, a squadron of national police officers was guarding the barn, while Aila, Minna, Jolene and Aigars sat down with officials from the bank and museum.
It was an altogether unheard of situation. The bank official, of course, knew the story of the missing World War Two gold and verified a brick, confirming that it was real solid gold. But they had never dreamed that it would resurface. This horde was worth about 7.5 million Latvian lats, approximately 10.5 million euros. It had been missing for so long that while it did ostensibly belong to the Bank of Latvia, there were also other concerns about what would happen to such a large sum of money.
Minna, as always, cut straight to the point.
“My father told me that this was to be saved and given to the people of Latvia. Not the government. Not anyone in power. To the people.”
“You are suggesting we give each Latvian person about three lats? That hardly seems worth it.” The bank official said.
“No. We create something of enduring value. Something that lasts. This is not the only cache like this. If each of them have as much as here, then that’s about 37 and a half million lats. That’s enough to create opportunities. Create meaning. Stop the flight of young educated people.”
“What do you propose, ma’am?” a museum official asked.
Minna outlined her plan. Eventually, all were in agreement. Seventy years later, the money would go where it was needed most.
Three years later
Ever since assisting in the recovery of the greatest modern-day gold find, Aila had been busy. But she always made time in her schedule to participate in all of the institutions that Minna had spearheaded the creation of.
Agricultural schools, farm equipment co-ops, land grants, libraries… Minna had done it all. She more than anyone had studied the history of her father’s agricultural ambitions for Latvia – small farms had been the backbone of the nation’s history and culture for centuries, and that was the way it was going to remain.
While large agri-businesses took over in other countries, Minna’s efforts meant that Latvian farms preserved their traditional character, but with modern efficiencies that meant that yields were higher and the work was not back-breaking. The sharing of farm equipment meant that the farmers would not need to spend huge sums on each piece of equipment themselves. Young people who wanted to start their own farms were provided with grants of land and the partnership of an older mentor to assist them in their dreams.
With seventy-five percent of Latvian families participating in farming – either on a day-to-day basis or on the weekend while they lived in the city – national stress levels were down. Grants had made it possible for unemployed city dwellers to relocate to a farm, providing them with sustenance and a marketable product. Latvian food exports were bigger than they had ever been.
With people moving to the country, small villages, previously ghost towns, were re-invigorated as local markets flourished and vendors of non-farm goods joined in as well. Schools, with well-funded libraries, returned to the villages, and children had new technology in every classroom.
The initial funding from the recovered caches was long gone, but as the economic fortunes of the people improved, there was a constant flow of money to improve services and offerings in local communities. As people’s reliance on themselves and their communities grew, the government had to adapt as well. Corruption was at record low levels. The country was returning to an economic prosperity not seen in decades.
All because of one Nebraskan woman who had not given up on the stories told to her by her father. And that was the woman they were now here to remember.
Three years to the day of them finding the gold cache on Aigars’ farm, Minna passed away peacefully in her sleep while staying in her father’s old farmstead in southern Latvia. She would be buried there in a new family graveyard.
Aila stepped out of her car and joined the queue of mourners that had arrived to pay their respects. When she reached the family, she gave Jolene a big hug and was introduced to the rest of Minna’s children and grandchildren.
After the service, a new monument was unveiled in front of the old house – a metal statue that had been cast based on a photograph that Minna had held dear. A photograph of herself as a small child, walking hand in hand with her father.
A simple plaque on the monument said it all – “Through the Generations, Hope brings Prosperity.”
Aila placed her bouquet of flowers at the foot of the monument. She stepped back to really take a look at her surroundings – the forests rustling in the wind, the clear sky, the abundant fields. She smiled, thinking of everything that was made possible through one woman’s commitment to her family. It was such a simple thing, but so easily forgotten in the modern world, with the rush towards more and more, rather than better and stronger. Latvia had reversed that trend. Maybe other countries would follow suit. She knew they would. She could feel it in the air.
Copyright 2013, Antra Celmins.