Between you and me

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By Leah Dunaief

“Woman in Gold” is based on a true story. It is also eerily similar to another true story to which I am privy.
The movie, currently playing in limited release and shortly to move into local theaters, is about an octogenarian Jewish woman who struggles to reclaim paintings looted from her family by the Nazis a half-century earlier.

Dame Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian who barely escaped with her new husband before the jaws of Nazi death clamped down on Jews and dissidents following Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938. Ultimately, they lived out their lives in Los Angeles, but much of their extended family stayed and perished in the Holocaust. Their possessions were confiscated, including five paintings by Gustav Klimt. Those paintings, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” became Austrian icons; but for Maria Altmann, the portrait was simply of her Aunt Adele. The loss of those paintings came to symbolize the terrible loss of her immediate family, her home and her world.

As the years went by, claims of looted property began to surface. In the 1990s, Maria Altmann tried to reclaim her family’s art through the early channels for such action in Austria. She encouraged the son of a friend, a young and struggling lawyer, to represent her. He is the grandson of one of Austria’s most famous musicians, Arnold Schoenberg. He is also an American with little emotional connection to his grandfather’s country, nor Altmann’s cause, but he was initially attracted to the fight for the potential monetary windfall. Their battles with the Austrian government continued for a decade, during which they were aided by an Austrian journalist.

In a similar story, my friend Alice was also born in Austria and lived with her parents and brother in Vienna until the Nazi annexation. Her father was a lawyer, and when warned by one of his clients that he was on the round-up list for the next morning, he managed to escape with his immediate family to the west. They, too, eventually arrived in America, having left all their possessions behind in their hasty flight. One of their pieces of art was an original drawing by Picasso. Alice and her brother, now the rightful heirs, determined to enter claim for their stolen art, especially the most valuable piece by Picasso.

Their claim dragged on through the courts for the better part of a decade, roughly at the same time as that of Maria Altmann although much less in the news. Remarkably, they too were joined in their struggle by an Austrian journalist, whose efforts ultimately helped make the claim successful.

Like Altmann and E. Randol Schoenberg, Alice and her brother, against their will, returned to Vienna for hearings. It was an emotional journey back to the streets of their childhood for them. The film does justice to Altmann’s terrible memories with repeated cuts back in time to the growing atrocities of the late 1930s.
There is another interesting parallel when the claims succeeded. In the movie, the primary Austrian antagonist asks for some sort of shared ownership from Maria Altmann. His suggestion is curtly dismissed by Mirren. As my friend Alice was handed the framed Picasso by an Austrian official, she was told sarcastically that she’d “probably just sell it for the money!” to which she replied, “And that is now none of your business.”

She did not sell it, but rather gave it a position of honor in her Washington Heights apartment. It was, for her, the tiniest satisfaction from a bitterly lost world.

Maria Altmann did sell the painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer to Ronald Lauder, Estée Lauder-heir and owner of the Neue Gallery of Austrian Art on 86th St. and Fifth Ave. in New York. She used the money to help Schoenberg establish his law practice and to help both family members and charities close to her heart.

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By Leah Dunaief

Almost 20 years ago this Easter, I left the comforts of home to go on a tour 10,000 miles away. The adventure was originally billed as a trip to Australia and New Zealand, but the tour company representative called to tell me about a month in advance that New Zealand was going to be eliminated from the itinerary to shorten the trip — and we would just visit Australia. I was terrifically disappointed and made my feelings known. After all, how often did I plan to be in the neighborhood? As long as I was making that long flight, I was intent on touring both countries.

Since I knew the tour owner personally, I carried on about my disappointment long and hard. Finally he called with a proposal. While the official visit was now only to Australia, there was a small group of six people, whom he knew well, who were indeed going on their own tour of New Zealand. One of their group had been stationed there during World War II and had put together a pre-tour visit. At my friend’s suggestion, they were now prepared to include me. Did I want to go with them?

“Would I be like a seventh wheel,” I asked. “No,” he assured me, “they would really like you to join them.” “Did they all know each other beforehand,” I worried. “Yes, the three couples were quite good friends,” he explained, “and lots of fun.” I worried more. “Here, take their phone numbers and call them — you can decide for yourself,” he said as he ended the call, glad to have finally solved the problem.

I did call one of them, a hasty call because she was running between two appointments, but she did encourage me to come. They were leaving from three different corners of the United States: Seattle, Los Angeles and Sarasota. So I agreed to meet them on the South Island in Christchurch, the second largest city of New Zealand, in a specific hotel lobby on Easter Sunday at 7 a.m. I can only marvel today at my daring.
The drama intensified.

Before I got on the plane to begin my trip, I came down with a nasty cold. By the time I got to Auckland, New Zealand’s gateway city on the North Island at 6 a.m. I had a temperature of 102 degrees and felt rotten. Fortunately I had included a Z-Pak antibiotic in my luggage, and I swallowed down the first dose on the bus to the motel. That bus ride went on forever, seeming to stop at every corner. When I finally arrived at the motel and got into bed, one thought occurred to me: Everyone in the world who cared about me enough to take care of me was on the other side of the world. With that, I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke in the afternoon and wandered outside, looking for a place to eat, I was surprised to find all stores tightly closed and the streets almost empty Finally catching up to a pedestrian, I asked why.

“Everything is closed on Good Friday!” he exclaimed, looking at me as if I had just dropped down from Mars. Which indeed is how I felt. “Only the tourist shops and the movies are open today,” he added, sensing that I needed further help.

I took a bus to the center of the city and chatted up the bored clerks in all the tourist shops I could find. Auckland, a clean and beautiful city on the water, felt the size of Boston. Then, when the tourist places closed, I found the city’s equivalent of Times Square and went to see “The English Patient.” There weren’t many people in the cinema, and those few didn’t hear all the dialogue because by that time, I was coughing very hard. But it was a gorgeously filmed movie, even if I didn’t understand the plot entirely, which I attributed to my illness.

The next day I flew to Christchurch, a city that could have been located in rural England, and at the appointed hour on Easter morning I met my six traveling companions, who looked a little nervous too. Fortunately we hit it off, had a fabulous trip through the South Island, from glaciers to beaches, saw about 60 million sheep and have been friends ever since. It was a Happy Easter memory and I wish you one this year too.

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Several joyous events are coming together for us at Times Beacon Record Newspapers. One is the 39th anniversary of the founding of our media group, which began with the first issue of The Village Times on April 8, 1976. While we had little doubt that we would be successful, such being the perception of total ignorance, we look back at the intervening years with astonishment and humility. We are astonished by all that has transpired in the communications industry during that time, from the advent of typesetting and desktop computers to the soon-to-be released Dick Tracy watch from Apple. And we are deeply grateful for our endurance, the result of a selfless and totally committed staff and a trusting and supportive readership and advertising base. We are incredibly appreciative that we have with us staff who have been with the company for so many of those years, and subscribers and advertisers who still think we are worth the cost. And we highly value those who have joined us most recently, for they keep us on the cutting edge.

In creating The Village Times, in effect we created a microscopic world within our office in which talented staffers worked as a team to publish a hometown newspaper each week. Everyone learned to fill almost every position because we never knew who would be called away without finishing the allotted work. Why would that happen? Because we were mainly a group of mothers with young children, and I can say in all truthfulness that we invented the concept of job sharing.

As a result of so much teamwork, we tightly bonded then, even as we have continued the tradition of helping each other every day. Those bonds are much in evidence whenever former staffers, now highly successful perhaps in larger communications corporations, stop by to say “hello” and catch up on the latest. For we know of each others’ families, challenges and successes over the years and we delight in staying in touch.

As we built and grew newspapers, we also worked diligently to build and grow community. That is, after all, the consequence of a community newspaper that exists to share the problems and triumphs of the latest news, The net effect is to encourage bonding among residents for the common good and for pride of place. Where there is a strong sense of community, everyone benefits, from school districts and local governments to commercial, cultural and athletic efforts.

This weekend, we will celebrate the 39th annual party honoring the men and woman of the year as selected in our last issue of this past year. By appreciating their work in going the extra mile and enhancing our lives with their accomplishments, we are also strengthening our pride in community and encouraging communications among all segments of our hometown. When we get all those leaders into one room at one time socializing together, we like to think we are cross-pollinating for future cooperation and success. We will run some photos from the event in next week’s papers so that everyone can feel pleased with where and among whom we live.

Besides all that fun stuff, we are bringing out our latest publication, a beautiful magazine: LIFESTYLE. It will be inserted in all our newspapers each month, and we hope it will offer a breath of fresh air alongside some of our more somber news articles. In LIFESTYLE, we will examine activities and issues that animate our region and some that we might hope to enjoy. LIFESTYLE is intended to upgrade and augment our regular supplements, like Focus on Health, Our House, SummerTimes and HarvestTimes, and we will develop ideas and go farther afield in geography in its pages.

And finally, I will share with you our excitement over our revamped and upgraded website. With our new platform, we will be able to bring more news, more photos, more features, more voices and more interactivity to our communities. The official rollout is next week but, like the news itself, it will be an ongoing work in progress.

We create these new products and events to further your pleasure and the value you feel in our media company. But we cannot succeed in any of these efforts without your support and input. We will be delighted, as always, to hear from you. Happy Spring!

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By now, many people have heard of the Setauket Spy Ring and its leader, Benjamin Tallmadge that operated valuably during the Revolutionary War. For that and for putting Setauket “on the map,” so to speak, we can thank AMC’s “Turn,” the cable television program soon to begin Season 2. That these adventure stories have made our village famous I can vouch for personally. Many times, when I have been asked where I am from and have

answered, “Setauket,” I have then had to explain, even to Long Islanders, my hometown’s location as being between our better-known neighbors, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson. Now people will sometimes respond, “Oh, the Setauket spies.” They may still not have a geographic grasp, but at least they are impressed.

“Turn,” however, is just that, a series of adventure stories whose goal is to entertain and only accidentally teach. Unlike the popular series, “Downton Abbey” on PBS, where there is a full-time historian employed to assure accuracy of even the smallest details concerning the table settings, “Turn” makes up the narrative when the historic details aren’t convenient for the plot.

That is not to say that all characterizations and facts are not correct in the TV series. We learned of some that are and some that are not at a panel Sunday afternoon in the Emma Clark library in “famous” Setauket. The event, directed and moderated by reference librarian, Carolyn Emerson, featured five distinguished historians who answered questions from the moderator about the lives of citizens, soldiers and spies at the gathering titled, “Setauket During the Revolution.”

The five were town historian Barbara Russell; Three Village Historical Society’s Beverly Tyler; Suffolk Cooperative Library System’s Mark Rothenberg; Third Regiment, New York historian Bob Winowitch; and Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, lecturer and curator of the “Spies” exhibit at the historical society. Each panelist spoke for a few minutes, then answered questions from the standing-room-only crowd. For fun and instruction, most of the panel came dressed in clothes reminiscent of the Revolutionary War era.

Tallmadge, founder and head of the network, was a major, active in the Revolutionary battles in the north, even as he organized and oversaw the spy ring they called Culper. Abraham Woodhull was the resident spy, later replaced by Robert Townsend, and Caleb Brewster served as a courier, ferrying messages across the Long Island Sound to Washington in Connecticut. Others were deeply involved, including Austin Roe and Anna Smith Strong. The spy work was stressful and dangerous and involved the use of “invisible ink,” messages written between the lines of legitimate bills of sale whose words could be read only with the application of a special reagent. Much of the intelligence garnered came from mingling with the British in New York City, and so those spies had to have apparent reason to travel back and forth.

One significant accomplishment of the spies was to alert Washington that the British were sailing with a superior force to greet the French, who had entered the war and were due to disembark in Newport, R.I. Washington was then able to plant a fake set of plans for the invasion of New York City where the British would discover it. Intent on keeping control of New York City, which they viewed as key to their success, the British fleet turned around in the Sound to rush back for the anticipated battle. As a result, the French landed without opposition.

Life on Long Island under eight years of British occupation was hard. Residents were routinely subjected to forays by British troops for food and valuables. The population at the time was agrarian, with hard farm labor the order of the day, and the British viewed Long Island as their breadbasket. No one was safe, and as a result many who started the war as Loyalists became Patriots — hence the title “Turn.”

To judge the difference a TV series makes, in 2013 there were up to three visitors a week to the spy exhibit at the historical society, sometimes none; in 2014, there were 30. If you watch the AMC series, as I will on DVD, be sure to check the facts on any number of relevant websites.

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