Between you and me

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This is the time of year when many people travel. Vacations from school schedules, more comfortable weather, package deals and the urge to get away from the familiar and learn something about how others live, all conspire to encourage us to hit the road, or the rivers and seas or the air and go somewhere. And finally there is good news for the solo travelers among us. Party of one is no longer as expensive and difficult to book as it has been.

According to a recent New York Times article, one in four travelers on overseas vacations went alone last year, up from 15 percent in 2013 based on the latest Visa Global Travel Intentions Study. With the numbers increasing, travel companies are paying attention. Companies that have long been in business are finally offering guided trips for singles and at accessible prices.

Solo travelers are not necessarily singles who are looking for other singles but rather more often marrieds or those in committed relationships who, for one reason or another, might be traveling alone. Sometimes a couple owns a business together, and only one can leave at a time. Or perhaps a couple might be caretakers for an elderly person or one with special needs and can only get away individually. Sometimes trips have a singular theme, like tennis or rappelling, that doesn’t appeal to the partner. Then there is the familiar situation where one member yearns to travel and the other dislikes leaving the comforts and predictability of home for the uncertainty of the road. Traveling solo may save that relationship.

Among first-time travelers, The Times tells us, solo travel has jumped to 37 percent from 16 percent in 2013. This change alone has got to offer encouragement for the widow or widower who hankers to go off on a trip but is intimidated by the prospect of being without a companion. And guided tours among solo travelers are up almost 300 percent since 2013.

Look at some details of contemporary living. Over half of American adults are single. Does that surprise you? It certainly excites travel companies serving that market. As recently as 2012, one in five American adults had never married. Compare that with the one in 10 of 1960. And that is not just the trend for Americans. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, are not far behind. Further, among Americans 45 or older who traveled solo, 53 percent are married while 39 percent are single or divorced, according to AARP.

Some companies are reducing or doing away altogether with the despised single supplements. To mention names, Tom Harper River Journeys, a river cruise company near Boston, offered the information that in 2016, it would have a ship with supplement-free staterooms. The Majestic Line, a small-ship cruising company in Britain, announced that two of seven en-suite cabins on a new ship would be for singles without additional supplements. Holland America, of Seattle, is planning to add 12 new ocean-view cabins for singles on a ship coming in 2016. Companies such as Zegrahm Expeditions and Tauck are offering some relief to those saddled with single supplements, Then there is Solos Vacations, the American arm of one of the oldest British companies, Solos Holidays, whose attendees average 55 years of age.

Here is another comforting statistic from AARP: More than 80 percent of people 45 and older who have traveled solo plan to do so again within the next 12 months. That’s close to a unanimous endorsement. I would certainly be in that 80 percent. While I have never planned an entire trip alone, I have been on parts of a trip unaccompanied and have discovered what I really already knew: That the world is filled with people and that most who travel are interested in meeting and chatting with others similarly inclined.

There are some advantages to being alone. People might be hesitant to engage in conversation with two or more people, but they will readily do so with someone clearly alone who might initiate some chatter about the weather, the food, the accommodations or any other common experience. And that exchange might even lead to getting a cab together at the final destination or having beneficially shared time.

It is getting easier and cheaper to travel alone at last.

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My mother adamantly refused to let the pediatrician remove my tonsils several decades ago. She certainly respected his expertise, having chosen him carefully after an extended search when she knew she was pregnant. But she was not going to agree with his recommended course of action despite my chronic tonsillitis.

“Do you have clinical evidence that children who have had their tonsils removed get sick less often?” she demanded of him. “No,” he responded slowly, “only anecdotal evidence. You know the tonsils have no known function and are not necessary, and hers are very large.” “Hmmph,” was my mother’s rejoinder, “not known to you doctors.” So, as you might expect, I grew up with my tonsils and still have them to this day. They are large enough to inspire each new physician who looks in my throat to exclaim over both their size and their existence in a member of my generation, but whatever role they may play in the human body, they are still playing in mine.

My mother and my father had two strongly-held beliefs: First that there were no superfluous parts to the miraculous human body and, second, that optional surgery was not an option. I am sure they were encouraged in those beliefs by the death of an only child of dear friends during an optional tonsillectomy.

Do I know if they were right? All I can offer is that history shows the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That is why I felt a burst of glee when I came across a recent article in The New York Times Science section headlined, “Saving the Appendix.” They stopped removing tonsils as simply a matter of course many years ago, but here was further affirmation of the parental dicta.

“Five small studies from Europe, involving a total of 1000 patients, indicate that antibiotics can cure some patients with appendicitis; about 70 percent of those who took the pills did not require surgery,” according to Gina Kolata, author of the article. As well, patients who had an appendectomy after first trying antibiotics did not face any more complications than those who went directly to surgery. This, of course, flies in the face of traditional exhortations about rushing to remove the inflamed appendix before it bursts, potentially with dangerous results.

While these studies suggest that surgery can be avoided altogether in treating appendicitis, a large-scale clinical trial must be held for verification — and one is in the planning. When patients who had already had an appendectomy were asked if they would have been willing to try antibiotics first, nearly three-quarters responded “yes.”

The appendix is “a tiny, worm-shaped tube that hangs off the right side of the colon,” Kolata said, and no one knows what it does or why it can suddenly act up. Nor does anyone know why it also can get better on its own, even without antibiotics. And antibiotics actually have been used in the past to treat an inflamed appendix.

According to The Times, during the Cold War in the 1950s, when American sailors spent at least six months on nuclear submarines that were prohibited from surfacing, patients with appendicitis were given antibiotics and no deaths or complications were reported.

To use antibiotics would, of course, eliminate the need for surgery and hospitalization where appendicitis is diagnosed, which would be both cheaper and safer. But even if it revolutionized traditional treatment, using antibiotics would not immediately answer key questions: Would the appendicitis recur? If so, how often? How much antibiotics would be required? How would the drug best be administered?

Presently, doctors don’t usually tell their patients about the antibiotics option, citing the above unanswered questions as a reason. Also we know and, for the most part, approve that medicine is a highly conservative profession, avoiding the trendy but insufficiently tested. It is hard “to go away from a 30-minute operation that cures them for the rest of their lives,” said Dr. Giana Davidson, a University of Washington general surgeon quoted in the article.

But patients are finding out on their own and some ask for this nonsurgical alternative, thanks in part to information gleaned from the Internet.

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If you could wave a wand and make all the summer weekend traffic on Long Island’s highways disappear, it would be a miracle, right? Well, we should prepare ourselves for a miracle, because one is about to touch down at Port Jefferson. Specifically, it will arrive, starting tomorrow, May 22, and will last through Sunday and every summer weekend thereafter.

This miracle to which I refer is a high-speed ferry that will carry walk-on passengers back and forth from New York City to Port Jefferson three times every Friday, once on Saturday and again three times on Sundays.

In so doing, it will, of course, provide an alternate route not only to Port Jefferson but also, thanks to its alliance with the Port Jeff ferry and the Hampton Jitney, to points east and north. Do you hear the announcement, “North Shore, North Fork, Hamptons and the wineries”? What a stimulus this can be for business even as it is a long overdue benefit for passengers.

A partnership between Seastreak, the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry and Hampton Jitney is making this new mode of transportation possible. These companies will link the tristate area, even tying into the New Jersey coast.

The seasonal weekend service is called Sea Jitney, and it will use the Port Jefferson dock as its hub. Hampton Jitney service will carry passengers to their preferred destinations elsewhere in Suffolk, and the Port Jeff ferry can take them to Connecticut and Amtrak.

“Seastreak has been an innovator in introducing new ferry services from New York City to destinations such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket,” said Jim Barker, president of Seastreak, in a press release.

I know something about that service because I used it myself as a way to spend a weekend with friends who lived on Martha’s Vineyard. But in order to do that, I had to travel out east at an early hour to catch the boat.

Still, I was willing to do that to avoid the legendary traffic jams that come with driving there, and as I bet people will do to visit Long Island. According to Baker, the vessels are equipped with high-backed seating, a full bar and Wi-Fi service.

Geoffrey Lynch, president of Hampton Jitney, commented for the press release that this innovative idea from these “three established and respected area transportation companies … will give people a relaxing way to enjoy the East End and Port Jefferson.”

The ferry will leave Manhattan’s East 35th Street dock and Highlands, N.J., traveling round trip.

Margot Garant, Port Jefferson’s mayor, said in the release, “We are extremely pleased to partner with the Sea Jitney to help bring people to Port Jefferson by our harbor. This powerful partnership has an extremely low impact on our infrastructure while introducing visitors to our beautiful, historic village.”

Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry general manager, Fred Hall, pronounced the Sea Jitney “a game changer for people who travel between Connecticut and the Hamptons. At two-and-one-half hours from Bridgeport to Southampton, it’s shorter than going through NYC and much less stressful.”

Here are some of the nitty-gritty details. One-way fares will be from $33 to $50, depending on the length of the ride; reservations and advance payment are required. The trip takes about two hours from the city to Port Jefferson and an hour, traffic permitting, from Port Jefferson to the Hamptons. For a complete schedule, go to

Aside from my patriotic enthusiasm for the new alliance, I have a totally selfish reason to be so pleased with this new turn of events.

My children and grandchildren live to the west. Their summer visits may change for them from endurance on the highways to a pre-weekend pleasure as they stand at the rail and watch the bluffs of Long Island’s North Shore slip by. I’d better start stocking the refrigerator now.

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It has been a revolving door at my house, which must mean it is truly spring. I don’t know about you, but as soon as the weather turns beautiful, my dearest friends shake the winter cobwebs out of their systems and call to see if they can visit. The number of calls increases with the rising temperature as we move into summer. I only slightly attribute that to my scintillating personality. I know the real impetus for visiting is this beautiful place we live in.

They all have bona fide reasons to come here. They have meetings, conferences, cultural events, doctor appointments, dentist appointments and so forth that bring them out from the big city or from other states, or even from the other coast. In the meantime, they get to enjoy the shoreline, the beaches, the docks, and the shops, restaurants and art galleries in the villages, and I get to enjoy them.

They all bring me something. And I’m not talking about the candy, flowers or wine that are house gifts. They bring me stories about their lives in other places, about their children’s successes and their grandchildren’s brilliance. They bring me news of friends we have in common, so I can catch up on who is doing what. They bring me memories of places and events we’ve shared, for they are usually longtime friends and, therefore, witnesses to my life. And they bring me laughter about outrageous moments we have known and tears for those whom we have lost. Most knew my husband, even my father and mother and my brother and sister, all of whom are long gone from this world but who live on in our recollections and in the stories we exchange. And we worry together over friends who are not doing so well and about each other.

We also plan for the future: plays we will get tickets for, meals we will share, museum exhibits that are not to be missed, concerts we will hear, perhaps even trips we will take together. At this time in our lives, we are free enough of familial responsibilities to dare make such plans.

We talk of books we have read, movies we have enjoyed, and experiences we recommend. In so doing, we broaden each other’s lives. We even exchange the names and symbols of equities we have heard promising forecasts about and interesting personal interviews we have caught on television. We are often fearless enough to wade into political opinions, even revealing whether we had or had not voted for President Obama and how we think he is doing. Just mention the name Hillary, and the conversation is off and running for the next half hour. Lest you think we support only one party, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush can also be part of the conversation. We cover the political waterfront.

As the day goes on, we might even lay bare some of our worries or shortcomings, offering encouragement to each other in the process, recalling triumphs that belie the worries. We might share recipes, including the men among us, and we brag about all the vegetables we have eaten in the previous 24 hours and how we cooked them.

They share stories about other friends, eventually introducing them and broadening our circle. Each newcomer brings some of the same interests, but also new subjects we might never have thought about, much less learned of. To pat myself on the back for a moment, I am pleased to have taught a small group of my traveling buddies how to recognize a Guernsey cow, which has orange and white markings, comes from one of the British Channel Islands and gives delicious milk rich in vitamin A. How do I know that? My father grew up on a dairy farm and shared that vital information with me, explaining how I could distinguish a Guernsey from a Jersey cow, which comes from another of the Channel Islands. How could we go through life not knowing that difference?

So my friends  are welcomed with clean sheets and morning coffee. Given all the above, it seems like the least I can do.

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This is going to be hard. I want to tell you about a highly original, marvelously acted, adventurous piece of musical theater I saw on Broadway last weekend, but I don’t want to give away much of the plot. I would hope you would see the play, as I did, knowing almost nothing about the details except that it has the highest number of Tony nominations this year with 12, alongside “An American in Paris,” and concurrently has garnered spectacular raves from critics and audiences.

For a play to be so applauded, it would have to be creative and break new ground for narrative, music and staging. “Fun Home” does all that. Performed at the Circle in the Square Theatre on 50th Street just off Eighth Avenue, and billed as a family tragicomedy, the show is adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, based on a memoir she kept through the years of her growing up.

OK, I will tell you it is both a coming of age and a coming out story. If you are the least bit uncomfortable with either of the themes, you should not see the play because the events portrayed are sometimes raw. And they are raw because they are heartbreakingly honest.

We all try to understand our parents, even more so as we age, because these are the two people who made us. In understanding them, we come to better know ourselves. So I will tell you further that the narrator of the play is the daughter and she is chasing her memories, trying to understand and come to terms with her father.

Memories have an evanescent, shimmering quality to them and that makes them hard to pin down with certainty, even in our minds, much less on a stage. Therefore the device that this play employs is particularly interesting. There are three actresses who play Alison, the narrator, at different times of her life — as an 8-year-old, a 19-year-old and her current age of 43 — as she looks on and occasionally cringes at what the other two say and do, If you think about it, we all react that way sometimes when we think of our younger selves.

So in this universal yearning to know our parents, some of the particulars of this family are unusual and in the viewing, they are wrenching. As has been said before, all happy families are happy in the same way, but unhappy families are unhappy uniquely.

Bruce, the father of three bright and imaginative children, is a high school English teacher, a restorer of old houses, the proprietor of a funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town and the husband of Helen, Alison’s mother. But his life is more than that, as divided personally as it is professionally, and therein lays the rest of the plot which I really am not going to tell you, however hard this is. I don’t want to ruin the surprises.

I will share with you, however, that the staging cleverly involves trapdoors opening and closing to disgorge and swallow up at different times objects in the home as large as the grand piano. When the lighting dims, it serves as a curtain would between scenes in a more conventional theater. And the music, highly original and opera-like as it is occasionally spoken and sung, perfectly carries forward the storyline and fills in the unsaid.

It is sometimes made up of big, brassy show tunes and sometimes of heartfelt yearnings.

Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn head up the cast in this poignant, provocative and haunting human drama, made all the more soulful because it is a real family we are watching. As they sometimes say on movie screens when the film ends, this story is based on actual events.

This musical play has gone in a new direction and can be as forthright because of the times in which we live.

Taboos can be spoken of out loud, and secrets can be revealed both on stage and in real life in an unprecedented way. This is both cathartic and liberating for audiences, as great art always is.

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A recent editorial in The New York Times decried a blatant act of anti-Semitism in Europe. Fans in a major soccer stadium in Holland chanted “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” and “Jews burn the best.” The home team, FC Utrecht, subsequently apologized for the outrage that occurred in a game against Ajax Amsterdam on April 5, but just imagine how someone Jewish in the stands might feel in the midst of those shocking outcries.

Worse, it was not an isolated incident. Kick It Out, a British watchdog organization, has reported that there were 59 instances of anti-Semitic slurs in the first half of the English Premier League soccer season, with chants of “Yids” and “Kill the Jews” at games.

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization, there seems to be a new alliance between neo-Nazis and jihadists. After the terrible consequences of anti-Semitism in Europe in the previous century, it is hard to believe such bigotry still exists, much less is alive and flourishing for the rest of the world to witness.

What is anti-Semitism today and how did it start?

According to columnist David Brooks, there are three strains of anti-Semitism circulating now. The first is in the Middle East, where it feels like “a deranged theoretical system for making sense of a world gone astray,” according to Brooks. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls Israel the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region,” whose leaders “look like beasts and cannot be called human.” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani “reinstated a conference of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists,” who propagate the usual conspiracist idiocy about Jews drinking the blood of non-Jews and spraying pesticides across arable lands.

“This sort of anti-Semitism thrives where there aren’t that many Jews,” according to Brooks. “The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining. This is a … flight from reality even in otherwise sophisticated people.”

Incredibly it can be a part of the architecture of society and taught repeatedly in some madrassas or schools to children. “It cannot be reasoned away,” said Brooks, “because it doesn’t exist on the level of reason.”

“In Europe,” Brooks continued, “anti-Semitism looks like a response to alienation. It’s particularly high where unemployment is rampant. … The plague of violence is fueled by young Islamic men with no respect and no place to go.” Brooks goes on to say that thousands of Jews a year are fleeing Europe. The echoes of terrors throughout past centuries are nipping at their heels.

In the United States, which Brooks pronounced “an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place,” nonetheless there is rising tide of anti-Semitism, especially on college campuses, with its basis seemingly in Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But why the policies of Israel should reflect on Jews in America any more than policies in Ireland reflected on the Irish in Boston, or the discriminatory and shameful treatment of Japanese Americans interned during World War II should have ensued, is simply bigotry. And anti-Semitism is a particularly virulent form of bigotry whose dark underside is hatred leading to violence and even extinction.

History is filled with brutal examples including the pogroms, which preceded the First Crusade in 1096; the expulsion from England in 1290; the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion from Spain in 1492; the Cossack massacres in Ukraine, 1648-57; the pogroms in Imperial Russia between 1821-1906; the Dreyfus affair in France, 1894-1906; and the more recent horrors of the 20th century, just for a historical overview. It’s an evil virus that sometimes hides but does not die.

Brooks suggested that the best response is confrontation, arousing the “brave and decent people” to take “a page from Gandhi” and stage demonstrations, as laws and governments reign in even the smallest assaults.

“Disturb the consciences of the good people. … Confrontational nonviolence is the historically proven method to isolate and delegitimize social evil.” Is that enough?

We seem to have conquered or, at least, mitigated the virus causing AIDS. Perhaps against this form of racism, we can together do the same?

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By Leah Dunaief

To negotiate or not to negotiate, that is the question. At least that is how our mealtime conversations in the last week started on the subject of a possible treaty with Iran. It is a polarizing issue, and almost everyone I’ve shared a meal with has had a strong opinion on the matter.

“Don’t trust them. They cannot be held to any agreement they sign. Are we listening to what Supreme Leader Khamenei is saying or do we think it’s all rhetoric to rally his right wing?”

“We should definitely negotiate with them and at least try to postpone the production of a bomb in that volatile part of the world. We’ll be able to know if they are reneging because we have satellites and Israel has spies all over the country,” is another perspective. “What harm can negotiations do?”

“What harm? What is it that brought the Iranians to the negotiation table to begin with? The economic sanctions are having a real effect on their country. They just want us to lift them and to achieve that, they will agree to anything for now,” comes the retort. And so the back-and-forth goes.

This time in our 21st century has been compared, rightly or wrongly, to Munich and the Neville Chamberlain agreement with Hitler over the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937-40, as Hitler was ramping up his aggression, and he desperately wanted to keep peace and stability within Europe. To that end, he is widely remembered for his attempt at appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Agreement that both men signed. Chamberlain had worked hard to get that treaty, traveling to Germany three times to meet with the dictator before bringing back that paper, along with the words, “peace for our time.” Although Czechoslovakia was effectively sacrificed in the deal, most of the British population, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, were ecstatically happy that Chamberlain had brought at least the possibility of peace to them.

One who objected strenuously was, we know, Winston Churchill, who declared that England had been offered a choice between war and shame at Munich. She had chosen shame, he continued, and will get war.

Indeed, Churchill felt that by Chamberlain’s drift and surrender to Hitler’s territorial demands, the prime minister had almost fatally delayed the need for Britain to arm and to pull together European allies. Chamberlain had also seemed to Hitler as being weak. “Our enemies are small worms,” Hitler later scoffed. “I saw them at Munich.”

Peace is an almost universal yearning; only aggressors want war. Can we condemn Chamberlain for striving to guarantee peace — or President Obama for that matter? While the world stage is not exactly the same now as in 1938, we know that Iran has fueled proxy wars in an aggressive attempt to increase its power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had launched bombing missions to push back Iran, and the United States has moved ships off the Yemen coast in an attempt to thwart arms shipments getting into terrorists’ hands.

Overhanging the horror of slaughter and brutality is the real prospect that Iran is on the threshold of developing a game-changing atom bomb, much as Germany was during World War II.

When von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, objected to the Munich Agreement that Hitler had signed, pledging no further hostilities once he annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, Hitler responded with, “Oh don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.” Now as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lays out the terms of a possible agreement from the negotiations, Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing them. When Chamberlain was admonished by Churchill to arm Britain in the face of coming war, the prime minister refused to do so wholeheartedly because he feared that Hitler would think he was walking away from the Munich accord.

Yes, let’s negotiate. And let’s remember the key to any successful pullback is President Ronald Reagan’s famous line: “Trust, but verify.”

Let’s also remember that we broke the back of the Soviet Union by winning an economic war, despite the fact that both sides had the bomb. The Iranians are at the negotiating table because the economic sanctions are hurting — or like Hitler, they are merely stalling for time. Finally, we have learned what Chamberlain did not: That a well-armed and advanced nation is the best deterrent to war.

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By Leah Dunaief

Who would have believed it? After the grueling winter we have all lived through, it is spring — finally, certainly, surely, unarguably spring. The relief, the excitement, the miracle of this annual rebirth is here. So I am suggesting that we live in the moment, at least for a few moments, and plan to enjoy our surroundings.

How do we celebrate the season? Here are some of my suggestions.

For starters, go outside and breathe deep breaths that won’t freeze your windpipes. Unless you are in the middle of traffic, you can smell the fresh earth.

Look up at the limbs of the trees. There are beautiful, symmetrical buds readying themselves to burst into bloom. Look under tucked away places, like the eves of your house. You might see birds building a nest to receive and shelter their young. Listen to those birds singing. They are bustling with activity as they serenade those who listen. Note the forsythia contributing bright yellow to the edges of driveways and roads, bolstered by smiling daffodils at ground level. The usual cast of characters is also pushing its way into our field of vision: crocus, hyacinths and any number of weeds that aren’t paid to blossom but do so to join the riot of color.

The weather this weekend sounds pretty nice, so get out those garden tools, but leave time to wander over to a beach and enjoy the views of calm water and the early distant sailboats. Bring The New York Times or your laptop and have breakfast on the sand Sunday morning. Get on your bike, take a long walk through the ’hood and chat with neighbors you haven’t seen in months. No, they weren’t away for the winter, they were just hibernating in their homes.

If you wish, write and tell us what your particular rituals are for welcoming the season. In the meantime, let’s celebrate: Oh, Happy Spring!

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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.