Opinion

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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 Daniel Dunaief

Every defeat, rejection, or failure can be like a drop of ice water on the back of our necks. We often can’t brush those droplets away and they seep into us, weighing us down, causing our feet to shuffle and shoulders to slump.

The self-esteem bashing moments in a week, month, or year can build up, turning us into a balled-up, wet rag in the corner of a dark room.

Certainly, the sunlight and warmth of spring can dry some of that out, as the chirping of newly hatched birds, the sight of children chasing after a ball on a playground and the scent of fresh flowers can evaporate the dreaded droplets.

And yet, that’s often not enough. We sometimes need more to turn ourselves into ice-water-resistant creatures who can tackle any assignment, avoid obstacles, or remain undeterred in the face of significant opposition.

Where do we find this relief? Some get it from exercise, where they perspire out those metaphorical drops of ice water. As they push themselves along the pavement or across glistening fields, they generate momentum, release endorphins, and become like the Little Engine That Could, remembering that a healthy dose of believing in themselves works.

Others get it from talking on the phone, writing in a diary or a blog, escaping to the movies, diving into books, or sharing a laugh with friends they’ve known for years.

What we sometimes need in our lives is a catharsis. You remember that Greek word for that moment when someone releases strong emotions, obtaining relief at the same time? We learned about this some time when we were in middle or high school.

Recently, my middle school daughter received an assignment that seemed like a confusing and challenging juggling act. She finished George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Her language arts teacher asked his students to find a song in which they saw an overlap with a theme from the book. They also had to relate that theme to their lives.

When my daughter came home from her first day of these presentations, she described in detail, how two of the four presenters broke down in tears as they shared their stories. In other classes, several students, including one of the untouchable “popular kids,” cried in front of his class as well. One of the students described his frustration with his frequent movement from one school to another as his parents’ jobs required starting over again every year or so. He looked out at the classroom, his teary eyes revealing his deep discomfort, and said he was sure no one in the room would be his friend for longer than the short time he’d be in town. He was resigned to the fact that he’d be a sad ghost someone might remember at graduation.

Another student shared the challenge of dealing with an impossible relative. This person pushed away any connection to a family she used to have, slamming the door, literally and physically, on anyone from her past who dared approach her. The disillusionment her father felt was magnified in her.

As my daughter thought of her assignment, her eyes welled up as well when she thought of the moment when something promising turned tragic. She had a spectacularly close connection with a young, vibrant first grade teacher whose life ended all too soon after a cancer diagnosis.

Even as my daughter described her feelings, I could see the small ice droplets that landed so hard on the back of her neck in elementary school, as they found an exit through her eyes. She will always remember that loss, but the catharsis more than five years later provided some relief.

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An anti-Common Core rally in Smithtown. File photo

Opting students out of state standardized tests has become a hot topic, and it’s a decision that should rest in the hands of parents, not school leaders.

Recently, Comsewogue School District officials had threatened to consider not administering the tests altogether if Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state education department did not acquiesce on a list of demands, one of which was to stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations. But the district clammed up on the measure after its attorney intervened. In addition, the NYSUT union, which represents teachers across the state, has called for a mass opt-out.

State law comes down hard on actions like this: Any school-board members or other officials like superintendents who willfully violate state education regulations — such as by refusing to administer a required assessment — risk being removed from office by the education commissioner, and state aid could be withheld from the district.

At the heart of the matter is a battle over local control of our school districts. While local officials should be consulted when it comes to shaping state education regulations and standards, there must be some degree of state standardization in education to ensure that our programs sufficiently educate kids. It’s wrong for administrators and school officials to politicize a high-emotion situation — the opt-out movement — in a way that could be detrimental to students.

In a school-sponsored, massive opt-out, the ones who face the greatest risk are the students — officials may put their jobs at stake, but the kids’ entire futures could hang in the balance if the state pulls education aid from a district that heavily relies upon it, or if otherwise competent school board members and administrators are kicked out of office.

Let us also pause to think about how adult behavior affects our kids. This paper has previously editorialized about how the commotion over the Common Core and state testing has negatively affected children — students see and hear their parents’ and teachers’ reactions, and many mimic that fear and anxiety when they otherwise would not have had such emotional reactions to tests and classes. At some point, we have to ask ourselves if this is the kind of behavior we want to teach our kids.

Calling for change is one thing, but screaming for it is another. Let’s not play politics. Above all, let’s keep cool.

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Stock photo

As a community newspaper, we value reader feedback and welcome any and all letters to the editor on the stories that compel our neighbors. But we received one letter in particular this past week that we felt warranted a larger editorial response.

Last week, we ran a story on Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) spearheading a new law that aims to more aggressively address domestic violence by empowering victims — connecting them with agencies and offering up a self-assessment questionnaire — and analyzing offenders. The bill was approved without a single “nay” in the Legislature, showing the county’s commitment to the issue.

On Monday, we opened up an anonymous letter addressed to the publisher of this newspaper, responding to our domestic violence reporting.

“Women can be opportunists,” the letter started. “If a man just pushes his girlfriend or paramour or even his wife, the next thing you know, she comes to court with a brace on her neck and bandages and a story that complains how she was pushed down a flight of stairs and strangled.”

Our initial reaction to this argument was scoffs and rolling eyes. (And why is this man pushing his partner to begin with?) While some people may have valid concerns over the consequences of tighter domestic violence laws, our anonymous reader’s remarks underscored the very same symptomatic problem, which affects both women and men, that Hahn’s legislation is looking to end in Suffolk County.

“No wonder guys go off the deep end and murder their so-called girlfriends. If I could not see my children, I would be mad as well. Enough to murder — possibly,” the secret letter writer said about custody battles. “Women are so thick-headed, unreasonable and vindictive, especially where money is concerned, that the greed of a woman scorned cannot be fathomed and we, the dads, husbands, boyfriends, are left out in the cold with no recourse.”

The writer asked that this newspaper “do something about these issues.” That is why we chose to dedicate this week’s editorial to his letter — to do something when we are confronted with a disgusting diatribe that condones violence against a group of people.

We hope the county law, still in its infancy, helps shift the train of thought of those like this reader.

Thank you for the letter.

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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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By Daniel Dunaief

I have a modest proposal: How about a new holiday, either in each school or in each town, every year? I’m not talking about taking any more time off from school or interrupting the flow of work, especially in a year when snow, ice and record-breaking blizzards that never happened upset our busy schedules. I’d like to suggest, rather, that we celebrate, recognize or mark the occasion for a different moment every year. We could create such a holiday some day in June, when classes are winding down and we’re just about to kick off the start of the summer.

Every year, Americans stop to recognize 9/11 in September. It’s a somber occasion and a chance to reflect on who we lost and what might have been. It’s also an opportunity to recognize the unimaginable bravery of those who did whatever they could to save strangers, friends and fellow New Yorkers and Americans.

Perhaps, one year, we might also recognize all the medical miracles that have made lives possible. I’ll never forget the day a colleague of mine at Bloomberg picked up the phone and his face went white. Seemingly unable to verbalize the terror in his mind, he grabbed his jacket and sprinted out of the room. His sudden and panicked motion created considerable concern from his colleagues.

As he told our editor the next morning in a barely audible voicemail, his wife went into premature labor and, less than an hour later, delivered a baby girl who weighed close to 1 pound.

For weeks, whenever he came to work, he seemed to look past us, searching for any kind of help, spiritual or otherwise, for his daughter’s fragile life. After several months, she grew enough to improve her prospects for survival. We knew things were getting better because we heard the welcome return of laughter from our friend. We also saw him exhale for the first time in months, loosening and relaxing the taut muscles in his chest.

Perhaps, one school might find the names of the doctors and scientists who improved the treatment and care for premature babies who had considerably poorer prognoses 50 or 100 years earlier.

We might also pause to recognize those working in fertility clinics or in reproductive research, who have made it possible for couples having trouble conceiving to celebrate the marvel of their child.

Maybe we could celebrate the considerable achievements of scientists who have helped prevent an HIV diagnosis from becoming a death sentence. When Magic Johnson revealed that he was HIV positive, many of us probably never imagined we’d see him cheering for his Michigan State basketball team to make it to the Final Four in 2015.

It is through remarkable medical breakthroughs, incredible dedication and a desire to defeat diseases like cancer and AIDS that we can extend the quantity and quality of our lives and the lives of our friends and family.

Some of these achievements and lifesaving discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without the insights and inspiration of scientists, researchers and doctors on Long Island.

Perhaps we can take a moment to appreciate and acknowledge the guiding hand and valuable contributions religious leaders make to us. Bringing us together and encouraging us through our battles elevates us when we’re down.

We see headlines about people who take lives and make poor decisions. Perhaps, we could use a day to recognize those who, to borrow a phrase from just about every political ad, truly “fight for us.” And maybe, by acknowledging these achievements, we inspire the next generation.

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Gunshots rang out in the night on March 11 in Huntington Station. The bullets from the gun of someone fleeing a traffic stop struck Suffolk Police Officer Mark Collins in the neck and hip, triggering an immediate reaction in a team of medical and emergency personnel with one goal: Do whatever can be done to keep Collins alive.

Seeing the injuries to Collins’ neck, the medics at the scene directed the injured officer to the Stony Brook Trauma Center, where the Code T Team — the highest level activated — was called in. Several medical professionals prepared for his arrival, including a board-certified general surgeon and an anesthesiologist, in case the officer needed emergency surgery. The center also held open an operating room and a CT scanner and had several other medical professionals, including a radiology technician, at the ready.

“We bring all the necessary resources to handle any array of injuries,” said Dr. James Vosswinkel, chief of Division of Trauma, Emergency Surgery and Surgical Critical Care at Stony Brook Medicine.

A gunshot wound to the neck “doesn’t sound good,” said Vosswinkel, who was home in East Setauket before the incident. When Collins came in, “we mobilized all the appropriate services.”

The prospect of such a serious injury raised concerns for their incoming patient.

Any time there is a Code T alert, “your blood pressure goes up a little bit,” Vosswinkel said. Still, he and the other members of the medical crew were prepared to follow a system that uses a “standard algorithmic approach” for injured patients, “where we have people come in and everybody knows their role.” The medical staff relies on a set of instructions that involve multiple people whose responsibilities range from stabilizing the patient to identifying injuries.

How does a surgeon who might be required to spend hours with a patient at any given time — and often late in the night, as was the case with this officer — prepare for the moment when he might ask his or her body and mind to focus on something unexpected?

Vosswinkel’s response, like those of the police who deal with emergency situations in our communities, was simple: training. Four years of medical school, five years of general surgery and then a few years of additional trauma training helped him prepare emotionally and physically.

The doctors also “try to keep ourselves in good shape with a healthy lifestyle and the necessary rest,” which gives them emotional and physical control. “You’re prepared when you’re on call,” he said. “The first priority” in an emergency is to “get a good enough team and good enough number of people together so you can handle the rigors that may be required.”

Vosswinkel said he does what many people who confront a high-stress situation do: He takes a slow deep breath, moves a step back and does whatever he can to remain focused and logical.

“Practicing in a hospital like this allows you to keep focus and keep your emotions in control,” he said.

The bullet in Collins’ neck was an inch away from a much more precarious outcome. The surgical team put him in a medically-induced coma. Standing behind Collins in a wheelchair as other officers saluted their wounded colleague, Vosswinkel brought Collins out of the hospital.

Vosswinkel said he and the staff were inspired by Collins’ dedication as a police officer and his contribution to the community.

“How could you not be inspired by someone like him?” Vosswinkel asked. “These guys are out there making it safe so something bad doesn’t happen to us.” And, when something bad happens to them, the trauma unit stands ready.

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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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College is expensive. Actually, college is ludicrously expensive these days, as 60 percent of graduates from colleges and universities in New York are coming out of school with a debt of more than $26,000, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.

With these numbers in mind, we support Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci’s (R-Huntington Station) push for increasing the maximum amount of financial aid awarded through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

While college costs have increased drastically over the last 10 years, there has been no substantial increase in the maximum TAP award a student can receive. Individuals can currently cash in a minimum grant of $500 and a maximum of $5,165 each year.

Lupinacci said he wants to raise the maximum to $6,470, while also increasing the maximum eligible household income from $80,000 to $100,000. We wholeheartedly support this measure, as the increases would better align with SUNY and CUNY tuition rates for in-state residents and the high cost of living in New York.

For the 2014-15 school year, a typical undergraduate student studying at a SUNY college will pay a little more than $7,500 for tuition and student fees. Add room and board, and that cost becomes about $19,600.

Raising the maximum TAP award would provide many students — who may be supporting themselves and working full-time — an easier pathway to obtaining their degrees. This program could be especially crucial to students who are on their own and may not have someone to co-sign a loan.

We often use the phrase “every penny counts,” and in this case it couldn’t be truer. The purpose of public education is to increase access to an important service. Increasing TAP will help further that goal.

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New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales hit Hauppauge last week to outline Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to increase the state minimum wage from $8.75 to $10.50.

In his pitch, Perales projected a rippling economic impact that could potentially give 150,000 workers a pay raise and bring $382.3 million in value to Long Island. While this newspaper supports the notion of empowering our low-income earners with higher minimum wages, we still only see it as a one-dimensional, short-term fix that does not address the bigger issues of affordability.

Raising the minimum wage is a risky move that could end up hurting us in the long run if not done in conjunction with other means to address inflation and making New York — and Long Island — more affordable and livable. Long Island has already been struggling to prevent its young people from relocating because of its lack of affordable living options, and raising wages could consequently end up bringing the cost of living even higher for those still hanging on.

It’s already hard enough to live on Long Island as rents continue to skyrocket and costs continue to increase. That’s why we need a multi-pronged approach to coincide with the established proposal to raise the state minimum wage, which has increased a total $4.50 since 1991.

There are plenty of pros to raising the minimum wage, and Perales outlined key points during his Hauppauge visit — he said the number of workers on Long Island earning minimum wage would jump from the current 85,264 to 202,248.

But the state must not ignore the cons that come with such a move, including the potential layoffs at Long Island’s small businesses lining the main streets of our communities.

Our leaders too often put short-term patches on long-term wounds. Those immediate fixes serve a purpose, but we should be looking at the bigger picture.

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