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Leah Dunaief

Evelyn Berezin

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Two exceptional people, Edmunde Stewart and Evelyn Berezin, died this past week, one day apart. The funeral for one was at Bryant Funeral Home in East Setauket on Monday, for the other at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City on Tuesday. Although quite different, they were both well known for their talents. I was privileged to know them as friends. Their deaths leave a void for the world and a hole in my heart.

The first was a Scotsman, an orthopedic surgeon who lived for many years in Old Field and whose office was in Port Jefferson. He was 80 years old, and during his half-century of medical practice, he touched the lives of thousands of people. Educated well, he came to the United States to cap off his training, fell in love with one of the first women he met at Stony Brook — and Scotland’s loss was our gain. She was there, at his bedside all those years later, when, struggling to breathe, he finally succumbed to COPD.

Edmunde Stewart

The second was born in the East Bronx and was 93. She was one of three children raised in an apartment under elevated railroad tracks. It was so small that the uncle who boarded with them, while he finished medical school, had to sleep on a mattress under the dining room table. She was bright enough to finish high school at 15 and attended Hunter College at night while she worked. Unusually tall for her generation, she lied about her age in order to get her job. Under a World War II City University program that allowed women to study calculus and other specialized subjects at an all-male school, she then transferred to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and ultimately earned a degree in physics from NYU in 1946. Needless to say, she was in a distinct minority in her classes.

He, when not practicing medicine, and as a passionate lover of horses and riding, participated in the Smithtown Hunt for many years and on many wild rides through the neighborhoods. He cut a fine figure in his scarlet hunting jacket at the head of the pack. And he probably broke every bone in his body at least twice in his many falls, always with good humor during the phone calls as he related the latest mishap to his wife on his way to the hospital.

Evelyn Berezin

The other left NYU just shy of a doctorate in 1950 and ultimately found a job in 1951 with the Electronic Computer Corporation, a shop of engineers in Brooklyn. In between she married a tall Brit named Israel Wilenitz, who was a chemical engineer. She figured out how to design various computers including one that made range calculations for the U.S. Defense Department, another that kept accounts in business offices and one for an airline reservations system for United Airlines. She also built and marketed the world’s first computerized word processor. She went on to found her own computer company with two male colleagues, which was located in the Hauppauge Industrial Park, and eventually was bought out by Burroughs Corporation. For fun she loved attending cultural events, especially the American Ballet Theatre in New York City where she held a subscription. Recently she joined us with a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera.

Our best times together were probably on her back deck in Poquott, where she served us elaborate brunches of French toast, bagels and lox from the famous Russ & Daughters on the lower East Side of Manhattan and regaled us with historic events she had witnessed during her long life. She had something interesting to say about every subject, past and present, and was totally engaged in current events right up to the end. The last time I called her, she told me she had to get off the phone because she was watching “60 Minutes.”

He was also my orthopedist and shared with me a precious bit of wisdom: “You Americans feel that there should be a cure for every pain that you may feel. But the body isn’t like that. Pains, minor pains, are a part of life and can be borne without rushing into surgery to have them fixed, which is a risky thing to do in the first place.”

They were companions and their lives were an inspiration for me. I am diminished by the loss of my dear friends.

Stock photo

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The conversation in a New Jersey classroom of first-graders got around to the subject of Christmas, and the substitute teacher unleashed a bombshell. She told them that Santa isn’t real, that parents just buy presents and put them under a tree. On a roll, she didn’t stop there. Reindeer can’t fly, she advised the students, elves are not real, the elf on the shelf is just a doll that parents move around, there is no tooth fairy and no Easter bunny, either. She summed up with the news that there is no magic anything and that magic doesn’t exist. Whoa!

This made the top of the news earlier this week for CBS, NBC, Fox, USA Today and other major news outlets. No one, as far as I know, has interviewed the children to get their reactions, but the school superintendent and the principal were moved to speak, as the district apologized to the parents.

Montville superintendent of schools, Rene Rovtar, was “troubled and disheartened by the incident.” Cedar Hill Elementary School principal, Michael Raj, sent home a message to the parents in which he mentioned the “poor judgment” of the teacher and asked parents to “take appropriate steps to maintain the childhood innocence of the holiday season.” At least one parent, Lisa Simek, took to Facebook, expressing dismay. She urged that Christmas magic is real and expressed through acts of kindness, love, positivity and grace — from and for loved ones and strangers. The superintendent added, “The childhood wonder associated with all holidays and traditions is something I personally hold near and dear in my own heart.”

We don’t know how the children reacted, but we certainly know how upset the adults are. And we have not been told if the teacher will be allowed to substitute again. How should we react to this?

On the one hand, we know that the idea of Santa Claus brings joy and excitement to children and therefore to the adults around them. This is hardly innocence exploited by adults but rather an opportunity for adults each to be Santa, to be their best, most generous, most loving selves. While the person of Santa is a fiction, the embodiment of all that Santa stands for most surely is not. Fictional characters can provide inspiration for the lifetime of a child as he or she grows up. Intergenerational mythmaking exists in many contexts, not only to entertain but also to inspire.

Children sooner or later catch on, especially when they see 20 Santas walking down the street together on their return from their Salvation Army posts. But on the other hand, how do children feel when they realize the adults around them have told them untruths? If they go to school expecting to believe what they are taught there, should the teacher acquiesce in mythmaking? For sure, this teacher handled the situation with poor judgment. It would have been far better for her and the children had she told them to ask their parents about the magic of Santa. For whatever reason, she did not do that.

How did you feel when, as a child, you learned that Santa was a story made up by the adults closest to you? Did you understand the greater good embodied in the concept or were you left to distrust on some level whatever those adults might subsequently tell you? Does misleading a child bring psychological questions into play?

It did not negatively affect Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked that question of her father when she was 8 years old in 1897. She said the answer inspired her for the rest of her long life. Her dad told her to write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper, and added, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The Sun’s hard-bitten, cynical editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote the answer that turned into the most reprinted editorial over the next century in the English-speaking world: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This sounds like a fairy tale, but the latest weapon in the battle against mental illness is a bench. Yes, a brightly colored, sometimes plastic, sometimes wooden magic bench. In this particular instance, a bench can do wonders. It all started as a brainchild of psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda in the far-off country of Zimbabwe, which is just north of the Republic of South Africa.

In Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, he was treating a young woman for depression who traveled some 160 miles from her rural home each time to see him. At one point, when she couldn’t get to him, he discovered that she had taken her life. That tragedy changed his life.

Zimbabwe is a dirt poor country of some 17 million people with 12 trained psychiatrists, and they are only in Harare. Almost every person suffering with depression does not have access to evidence-based talking therapies or modern anti-depressants. There is not even a word in the Shona language for depression. The closest is “kufungisisa,” which means “thinking too much,” and is akin to “rumination” or negative thought patterns that often lie at the core of depression and anxiety. Long-term social stress, such as that brought on by unemployment, chronic disease in loved ones and abusive
relationships, is associated with depression.

In the early 1990s, nearly one quarter of adults in Zimbabwe had HIV with no meds to save them. In 2005, strongman President Robert Mugabe’s forced slum-clearance program to “drive out the rubbish,” known as Operation Murambatsvina, caused the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of homes and jobs. The consequence of such events was widespread depression.

For Chibanda, the challenge was enormous. He felt strongly that had his patient been able to see him regularly, he could have saved her. But how to get mental health care to those who cannot easily access the help? Certainly not in the private clinics that he had planned to start in the city.

As he cast around in vain for government resources, he realized that grandmothers were already functioning since the 1980s as community health workers, supporting people with HIV, TB, cholera and offering health education. They were trained by the government, lived where they worked and were trusted and highly respected. In 2006, they were asked to add depression to their list of treatable ailments.

Chibanda took on a group of 14 elderly women, taught them to ask patients 14 questions, eventually called the Shona Symptom Questionnaire, and if the answers to eight or more were “yes,” then psychological help was deemed necessary. Questions included, “Do you feel you are thinking too much?” or “Do you ever have thoughts of killing yourself?” The patients put their answers in writing, and after the first interview, the grandmothers gathered in a circle to discuss each patient and decide how to proceed. Professional help might be sought for the extreme patients, but for the most part, the service provided by these grandmothers of listening and offering wisdom acquired over their years to guide patients to their own solutions to the problems at hand proved remarkably effective.

Where to sit and listen to these patients? Rather than in overcrowded clinics, the answer was on a bench under the shade of an old tree. The benches were placed outside the clinics, in plain sight, and by sitting down on one, a patient could indicate the need for intervention. In 2007, an initial pilot was begun in a suburb of Harare, and by October 2011 the first study was published. By then, there were 24 health clinics and more than 300 grandmothers trained in an updated form of problem-solving therapy. And by 2016, a decade after the program began, the results showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.

The Friendship Bench project, as it is known, has spread, with evidence-based approaches, to Malawi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Canada and the United States; Australia and New Zealand are on the wait list. There is also a program in New York City. Chibanda gave a TED talk in 2016 that has further popularized the Friendship Bench project

By Heidi Sutton

The 1,000-seat theater at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center was filled to capacity last Sunday night as the community came out in droves to celebrate the first screening of TBR News Media’s feature-length film, “One Life to Give.” And what a celebration it was.

“I have to say this exceeds our highest expectations. We are so thrilled,” said TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, scanning the packed house as she welcomed the audience to “what has been a year’s adventure.”

“I am privileged to be the publisher of six hometown papers, a website, a Facebook page and, now, executive producer of a movie,” she beamed.

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief addresses the audience.

Dunaief set the stage for what would be a wonderful evening. “I’m inviting you now to leave behind politics and current affairs and come with me back in time more than two centuries to the earliest days of the beginning of our country — the start of the American Revolution.”

“We live in the cradle of history and I hope that when you leave tonight you will feel an immense pride in coming from this area,” she continued. “The people who lived here some 240 years ago were people just like us. They were looking to have a good life, they were looking to raise their children.” Instead, according to Dunaief, they found themselves occupied by the British under King George III for the longest period of time.

Filmed entirely on location on the North Shore in 16 days, the film tells the story of schoolteacher turned spy Nathan Hale and how his capture and ultimate death by hanging in 1776 at the age of 21 led to the development of an elaborate spy ring in Setauket — the Culper spies — in an effort to help Gen. George Washington win the Revolutionary War.

Scenes were shot on location at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, the William Miller House in Miller Place, the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Thompson House and Caroline Church of Brookhaven  in Setauket and East Beach in Port Jefferson with many local actors and extras, period costumes by Nan Guzzetta, props from “TURN” and a wonderful score by Mark Orton.

The film screening was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes documentary and was followed by a Q&A with Dunaief, producer and writer Michael Tessler and director and writer Benji Dunaief along with several key actors in the film — Dave Morrissey Jr. (Benjamin Tallmadge), Hans Paul Hendrickson (Nathan Hale), Jonathan Rabeno (John Chester) and David Gianopoulos (Gen. George Washington).

“It says quite a bit about our community that we could pack the Staller Center for a story that took place over two hundred years ago,” said Tessler, who grew up in Port Jefferson. “I hope everyone leaves the theater today thinking about these heroes — these ordinary residents of our community who went on to do some extraordinary things and made it so that we all have the luxury to sit here today and enjoy this show and the many freedoms that come with being an American.”

Director Benji Dunaief thanked the cast, crew and entire community for all their support. “In the beginning of this project I did not think we would be able to do a feature film, let alone a period piece. They say it takes a village, but I guess it actually takes three.”

From left, Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos, Hans Paul Hendrickson and Dave Morrissey Jr. field questions from the audience at the Q&A.

“Our cast … threw themselves 100 percent into trying to embody these characters, they learned as much as they could and were open to everything that was thrown at them — I’m blown away by this cast. They are just incredible,” he added.

“The positivity that was brought to the set every day made you really want to be in that environment,” said Rabeno, who said he was humbled to be there, and he was quick to thank all of the reenactors who helped the actors with their roles.

One of the more famous actors on the stage, Gianopoulos (“Air Force One”) was so impressed with the way the production was handled and often stopped by on his day off just to observe the camera shots. “I really enjoyed just watching and being an observer,” he said, adding “It was just such an honor [to be a part of the film] and to come back to Stony Brook and Setauket where I used to run around as a little kid and then to bring this story to life is just amazing.”

According to the director, the film has been making the rounds and was recently nominated for three awards at Emerson College’s prestigious Film Festival, the EVVY Awards, including Best Editing, Best Writing and Best Single Camera Direction and won for the last category. 

Reached after the screening, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the film was the essence of a sense of place. “I thought it was spectacular. I thought that it was one of the highlights of all of the years that I have lived in this community.”

He continued, “It all came together with local people and local places talking about our local history that changed the world and the fact that it was on the Staller Stage here at a public university that was made possible by the heroics of the people who were in the film both as actors today and the people that they portrayed.”

For those who missed last Sunday’s screening, the film will be shown again at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore on July 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Filming for a sequel, tentatively titled “Traitor,” the story of John André who was a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, will begin in two weeks.

Special thanks to Gold Coast Bank, Holiday Inn Express, Island Federal Savings Bank and Stony Brook University for making the evening’s screening possible.

Photos by Heidi Sutton and Rita J. Egan

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Sometimes one gets by with a little help from their friends, or in other cases, book lovers, foodies and wine aficionados.

Times Beacon Record News Media hosted the Cooks, Books & Corks Fundraiser at The Bates House in Setauket June 12. Attendees had the opportunity to sample a variety of dishes from restaurants and caterers from across the North Shore, meet local authors and sample wines from Whisper Vineyards. The proceeds raised from the event will underwrite a summer internship with TBR News Media for a student from Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism.

Howard Schneider, founding dean of SBU’s School of Journalism, talked to the audience about the importance of the summer internship and journalism in today’s world. He referenced a recent Gallup poll where 60 percent of Americans said it’s difficult to decide what’s true, and they are overwhelmed by the information and misinformation they read.

“So, I tell you this because the fundraising portion of this dinner is to support a young journalist who will work with the Times Beacon Record newspapers, who will learn their craft and also do some important local journalism,” he said. “Because good journalism is not only about Albany and Washington, it’s about holding our local officials accountable for how they spend our money; it’s about whether we’re drinking safe water here in this community; it’s about whether our children are safe in school. And we need good journalists on the ground, starting here, to do that.”

The event featured keynote speakers Carl Safina and chef Guy Reuge. Safina, the first endowed professor for nature and humanities at SBU, has written several books about what he calls the nonhuman world. Reuge, owner of Mirabelle Restaurant in Stony Brook, recently penned the book, “A Chef’s Odyssey.”

Safina read an excerpt from his most recent book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” a piece he said he picked to honor Father’s Day. He said part of the book is about wolves, which he said are very instructive.

Reuge spoke to the audience about the process of writing and publishing his book with his wife’s uncle Philip Palmedo, which he said was rewarding in many ways.

“It was easy,” he said about the writing. “It took about seven or eight months to do. It really wasn’t that difficult.”

He said the recipes were tricky though, because one has to be precise, and he wanted to make sure he included some from his restaurant.

One of the authors who had a table at the event was TBR News Media proofreader John Broven. He said he appreciated the opportunity to chat with potential readers and listening to the speakers.

“It was a privilege to be a part of such a harmonious evening for an excellent cause,” he said. “Howard Schneider’s stirring speech in defense of real journalism was appropriately thought-provoking during the fundraiser.”

Publisher Leah Dunaief said TBR News Media looks forward to the second Cooks, Books & Corks next year. The event was coordinated by Evelyn Costello and sponsored by Michael Ardolino, George Rehn, The Bates House and Simple Party Designs. For more photos, visit www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

Mothers embrace one another during a Hope Walk for Addiction rally at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai last year. Photo by Kevin Redding

TBR News Media raked in 11 New York Press Association awards last weekend.

The company won prizes across the gamut of categories, from news and feature stories to photos and advertisements.

“I am so proud of the staff at TBR News Media that works hard to deliver the news each week,” Publisher Leah Dunaief said. “We are delighted to be among the top winners in the contest, as we are every year.”

“Comprehensive, sustained coverage of a life-or-death infrastructure issue. Lede with compelling citizens rather than reports from bureaucrats or written statements.”

— NYPA judges

In the feature story category, TBR News Media had two winners for its division amongst publications with similar circulation. Port Times Record Editor Alex Petroski won first place for his story on how a local political party boss helped President Donald Trump (R) win Long Island votes.

“Following the election, many wondered, ‘How did Trump win?” judges wrote about Petroski’s piece titled “One on one with the man who helped Donald Trump win Suffolk County,” which profiles Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle and details his relationship with the president. “This story answers that on a micro level with an in-depth interview of the man who helped Trump in Suffolk County. I think more papers would have been well served to seek out similar stories.”

Reporter Kevin Redding took third in the same category for his story for The Village Times Herald on a spooky local bar in Smithtown.

“A perfect pre-Halloween story about the haunted local watering hole,” NYPA judges said. “Plenty of examples of what some have seen, heard and felt, which is just what you’d want from a story about a haunted building.”

Petroski also won second place in Division 3 for his ongoing coverage on a boat ramp in Port Jefferson Village where two people had died and at least one other was severely injured, in the news series cateogry. Times of Huntington Editor Sara-Megan Walsh took third place in the same category.

“Comprehensive, sustained coverage of a life-or-death infrastructure issue,” the judges wrote of Petroski’s five-piece submission that included three stories, a front page and editorial on the topic. “Lede with compelling citizens rather than reports from bureaucrats or written statements. Narrative scene-setting ledes can make stories like this more important and compelling.”

Alex Petroski’s story on how Donald Trump won Suffolk County won a first-place feature story prize.

Redding also roped in a second award, getting a third-place nod in feature photo Division 2 for a picture he took for The Village Beacon Record at Hope Walk for Addiction at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai.

“There was tight competition for third place, but the emotion on the faces of the people in this photo put it a step above the rest,” the judges said of the women hugging and crying in the photo, who’d lost loved ones to battles with addiction.

Arts and Lifestyles Editor Heidi Sutton won first place in the Division 2 picture story category for her layout of local Setauket resident Donna Crinnian’s photos of birds in Stony Brook Harbor. The picture essay was titled “Winged Wonders of Stony Brook.”

“Elegant way to showcase nature of our feathered friends,” NYPA judges wrote.

Director of Media Productions Michael Tessler received an honorable mention in Division 2 coverage of the arts for his review of Theatre Three in Port Jefferson’s rendition of “A Christmas Carol.”

“Nice photos and an insightful story on the characters portraying a beloved classic,” judges said.

The Village Times Herald won first place for its classified advertising, as judges said it was “clean, precise, well-spaces and not crowded,” and Wendy Mercier claimed a first-place prize for best small space ad. TBR News Media’s Sharon Nicholson won second place for her design of a best large space ad. The Village Times Herald ranked in the Top 5 in total advertising contest points with 50, good for fourth place. The first-place winner, Dan’s Papers, received 90.

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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.