Thank you for visiting my site. If you’d like to read more current articles, visit my travel blog, Somewhere Or Bust. (Of course feel free to read any of the essays or stories housed here.)
Bear in mind, the site you are visiting is not dead. Once I publish one of the books I’m completing–a nonfiction book about my grandparents’ experience in the concentration camps and my attempt to uncover their stories OR a novel about an infant survivor of the Cambodian genocide OR a memoir about my year of surfing around the globe and encountering countless misadventures (I’m really not this depressing)–I’ll be back to publishing more posts here.
Some people truly neglect the importance of syntax.
The other day, I was speaking to a girl who I had just met for the first time at my friend’s wedding. She was telling me about her long highway drive with her boyfriend to get to the wedding. “My boyfriend was speeding,” she said. “We probably got a ticket.”
“How do you probably get a ticket?” I asked her. “Did you not stop at E-Z Pass or something?”
“No. We were going so fast that the cop pulled us over.”
I was even more confused. “So how did you probably get a ticket? Don’t you know if you received a ticket or not? Or do cops in Ohio write the ticket and then mail it to you?”
“Umm. No,” she said and rolled her eyes, snorting out air like a young bull. “I’m saying, it’s like we PROBABLY got a ticket?”
Did the cop get hit by a speeding car or did aliens come down and abduct him? What the hell is she talking about? I thought. So I asked some more clarifying questions.
“No. The cop wrote us the ticket.”
“Then why do you keep saying that you probably got a ticket?” I wondered sincerely.
“Fine. WE GOT A TICKET,” she said, enunciating every word. She turned to her friend, exhaled bovinely, and said, “Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.”
“Probably,” I told her, respecting the word.
When I was in college, I had a voracious appetite. Still do. The way I ate, if I took my three squares a day at the dining hall, my meal plan—which was meant to last a student from the end of August to mid-December—would have been depleted of funds well before Thanksgiving.
To keep weight, at the end of every second week, when meal-plan points were set to expire, I finagled with the girls on my floor to take me to the sumptuous buffet. I also kept track of everyone’s scheduled Sunday return to campus, panhandling for the cookies or rice biryani that their mothers had made for them. But I soon discovered that the best time of year for conserving dining hall cash was the beginning of each semester.
There were of course fraternity rush events, which excited potential brothers for the obvious reasons, but for me it was all about the free wings and pizzas. Those didn’t last long: After a while, I think I got blackballed. However, that’s when I found the goldmine. At the beginning of every year, the clubs would host a campus fair on the mall. They all had food to entice future members. I went around, scribbled down my name and email on every sheet, took whatever they were serving, and nodded a few times as I feigned interest in things like the Maryland Knitters Association. I became a Young Democrat because I liked pepperoni and I colluded with the Young Republicans because the pepperoni made me thirsty. I joined up with the Free Tibet club for some dish that I could not pronounce and then printed my name on the Chinese Culture Club’s sheet because they had good sauce for drizzling on the Tibetan dish. I even joined the American Marketing Association, which promised pizza at every meeting. I think that’s why I majored in marketing.
When I graduated, my father asked me, “What’s marketing all about?”
I recited the four P’s, which would be like the four Noble Truths to a Buddhist or the four questions to a young Jewish male readying for the Seder for the first time:
“Price, product, placement.”
It might as well have been pizza.
My friends and I started a vocabulary club. I know what you’re thinking… you guys are fucking awesome. (The f-bomb, I’m proud to say, is one of the new words we’ve learned since beginning the club.)
Anyway, we started off like any coterie of young, eager learners, using words that we could apply to everyday life: aberration, adduce, abase…
But then people started to get fancy. Wednesday was catawompus. Thursday katzenjammer. And Friday was salmagundi. So my friend Phil emailed me:
Dear Noah, he wrote. (He’s very formal.) What do you think about our latest selection of words? I don’t know about you, but I’d enjoy learning words that I’d be likely to use in conversation.
I agreed with Phil and sent an email to the group, trying to convince them to avoid the pretentious ones. And things went back to normal. That is until it was Phil’s turn to submit a word.
Docking was his choice. He used the Urban Dictionary’s definition: The act of placing the head of one’s penis inside the foreskin of another’s penis.
(I guess Webster didn’t know about docking.)
I thought I’d include for you the amazing sentence that Urban Dictionary offers to help vocabophiles retain the new and useful terminology: David and Patrick enjoyed docking immensely because of Patty’s stretchy foreskin.
I contacted Phil immediately.
“I wanted to add a little levity to the conversation,” he said defensively.
“But didn’t you tell me that you only wanted to use words that you could… Whoa!” I announced in shock. “Hold on a minute. Foreskin? I thought you were Jewish? Or are you the role of Patty’s David?”
Starbucks needs to improve its advertising.
The other day I went in for a coffee and waited for my friend. The store had posted in their windows the mandatory winter signs issued to all the Starbucks—various sayings you’d expect to find in a fortune cookie written by an ESL student.
The first sign read:
Friends are like snowflakes. Beautiful and different.
I checked my phone’s clock. My indifferent friend was running late, real late. I started to see the other side of snowflakes: ephemeral and cold. I sipped some more on my coffee… alone. I pulled out my magazine.
The next banner pasted against the window said:
Once a bean traveled the world to find you here.
It didn’t help that I was reading The Atlantic—The global warming issue. Why was Starbucks having a bean circumnavigate the globe anyway? I wondered. There has got to be a better logistics person working for this billion-dollar corporation that can help find a more direct route. I put down my magazine and fished into my bag for a less depressing read—The Alchemist.
The last sign read:
Stories are gifts.
“Is that The Alchemist?” some old lady asked me. She was dressed like a twenty year-old off to the clubs. I couldn’t look at her. “I remember when I read The Alchemist… Don’t you just love the part when… All is one…” She wouldn’t stop talking. I looked back at the sign and slammed the book gently against my face. I took one more sip from my depressing cup of coffee and said “Excuse me.” I left the table and walked over to the only optimistic sign in the place: Restrooms.
My girlfriend and I started taking Bikram yoga classes together. For those of you who don’t speak Sanskrit, Bikram means really, really hot yoga. It was probably used as a torture method long ago in India; but now, since we pay for it, the ninety-minute sweatshop that we’re locked into (the instructor actually locks us in) is considered a workout.
Strangely, I do like Bikram. I just have a few issues with it.
First of all, there are too many metaphors. “You’re a tree,” the instructor informs us. “You’re a lamppost… A cobra… A crescent moon. Rabbit. Bird… You don’t exist.”
What? I’m on metaphor overload. By the time I’m feeling like a triangle, I’m told to be an airplane. There weren’t any planes when yoga was created, I think to myself as I’m trying to become a plane, and then all I feel is anachronistic.
Another problem I’m having with Bikram is that it’s obsessed with my colon.
“Okay,” the instructor says as we all lay on our backs, squeezing our knees to our chests. “This pose is great for the ascending colon… Now pull hard and feel it in the descending colon… Let’s finish off and really massage that transverse colon.”
Number one: I didn’t realize my colon was so versatile. Secondly, when I hear “descending” and “colon” in the same sentence, I think bathroom. (During my second class, a novice to the Bikram world was pulling on her knee and must have really done the pose well because she ran for the toilet. The instructor scolded her: “Use the bathroom before class.” Jesus, I wanted to shout. Do you know what that girl’s colon has just been through?) Lastly, I don’t think there’s ever an appropriate moment to use “massage” and “colon” in the same sentence and feel at ease.
Maybe the most ridiculous pose of all is the one where you’re tangling up your arms and swinging one leg over and around the other, intertwining them like ropes.
“Get your right ankle around your left calf. This is great for your reproductive organs,” the yogi reminds everyone. The girls in the class do the pose well and look like they’ll all have splendid offspring. I, on the other hand, as I stand there scissoring my reproductive organs, crushing them like a lemon in a pulper, am sure I’m making myself sterile.
“I get out to the beaches when I can,” said a ten-year veteran of the Eisbach wave. “But since the closest beach is hundreds of miles away, this wave is something.” The coast along the North and Baltic Seas is fairly flat, since the waters are pretty much blocked from receiving swell. Most German surfers have to travel a great distance to ride waves.
Watching these men and women ride the river made the Eisbach seem like some parallel surf universe. Ocean-surfers fight to move forward on waves. River-surfers have mastered the art of avoiding going backwards. Even the most commonplace skills for an ocean-surfer—paddling through big surf, duck-diving swell, vying for position in the line-up, dropping into waves, popping-up—are useless talents for the river-surfer. (Surfer, by the way, is a word I never suspected would require modification.) This was actually the first trip I took in awhile where I was without my surfboard. I was stuck on the sidelines. It was frustrating.
If you’re an American who has traveled abroad, you’ve certainly felt like you belong to the world’s second most favorite North American country. A combination of political mishaps and that contingent of loud-mouthed American tourists has made many nations despise us. To make matters worse, the American globetrotters with good manners sometimes pin a Canadian flag patch to their packs because of the aforementioned loudmouths, which costs us well-deserved kudos.
So in order to level the playing field and make America #1 again, (at least on the list of top North American countries), when we travel, we need to start exercising our patriotic duty.
This is what you do: The next time you find yourself perusing some market or settling the bill in a foreign country, act like the biggest jerk ever.
That sounds preposterous, you may be saying. How would that ever help us?
In a very Patrick Henry sort of way, I made the ultimate sacrifice for America and tested this theory out when I was in a souvenir shop in Lima, Peru.
“What’s this a flute?” I said to the shopkeeper, as I manhandled some pipe.
“Do you kick this?” I asked, pretending to punt an intricately designed clay urn. The clerk nearly tackled me to save the endangered vase.
“Is this made of rat?” It was alpaca fur, the country’s prized resource. That question did not go over well.
But then, as I went to pay for my new gear, I made sure to add the golden touch: “I can’t wait to bring all of these gifts to my friends back home in my country of Canada.”
And that, America, is how we become everyone’s sweetheart again.
Europe’s Beer Gardens of Eden: Many divine stops for true believers on a pilgrimage from Prague to Munich
(First published in the Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 2010)
It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
I’m going to take that one step further: “Beer is God.” (After all, some religious folks tout wine as the Lord’s blood.)
If you’ve only sipped on flavorless American yellow-water, you’d likely disagree; but if you’ve drunk your way through Europe, you’d be apt to convert to my thinking.
Beer fits most of the criteria for a religion. It has zealots who can be brought to violence over the contents of their cup. And if you truly indulge, miracles tend to happen (even if you regret them the next day). Need I speak of the drink’s controlling powers?
The only thing beer as a religion is lacking is the holy pilgrimage. Some would argue Munich is the Mecca, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela of beer drinking. I’d agree. But like any good pilgrimage, devotees would need an acceptable route to the land where water flows like … well, like water, except that water is used to make really, really good beer.
This summer, I searched for that route. Like the stories of many acclaimed faiths, the stopovers most apropos on this journey were gardens. Beer gardens.
Those true believers headed to Bavaria for the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest — the Christmas/Rosh Hashana/Ramadan of beer drinking — shall taketh the trail that from this day forward will be known as The Beer Garden Pilgrimage to Munich.
Starting point: Prague. In this Czech Republic capital considered to be the new Paris, there are two beer gardens not to be missed.
The first is U Pinkasu, just off Wenceslas Square, at 16 Jungmannovo. Established in 1843, this rectangular garden is next to a towering cathedral with giant bell jar windows, casting both a haunting and holy shadow over the outdoor tavern. Most beer gardens in Europe are more beer and less garden, but this one actually has fauna that clings to the church’s stone facade. U Pinkasu was the first bar to serve the famous Pilsner Urquell.
You won’t find a beer garden with better fare than U Pinkasu. And pilgrims will appreciate the prices that still embody pre-euro Eastern Europe, with appetizers around $5 and most entrees under $10. Of the old Bohemian specialties, the tastiest is the beef goulash with bread dumplings — a rich stew served with matzo ball-esque slabs of dumpling. And it would be heresy to pass over the soft sausages soaking in beer broth.
The waiters are friendly but pushy with the tips. Ours brought a calculator to the table and typed in the gratuity he felt he deserved — a bit more generous than the standard 10 percent. Credit cards are accepted, which is not common as the pilgrimage marches forward.
Onward young believer. Next stop: the yellow fortress of U Fleku. This spot at Kremencova 11 serves only one beer, Flekovsky Lezak 13. Even my non-beer drinking girlfriend enjoyed this dark lager.
Waiters march around the stone yard with trays stacked with foaming 0.4-liter glasses as if it were a dim sum restaurant. To sip the black magic will run you $4 a glass. The garden, which accommodates 450 imbibers, is larger than U Pinkasu’s, yet has a more romantic vibe. Accordion players and other musicians play local tunes, while mixing in a few Western favorites like “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine.”
An on-site museum offers tours of the brewery that, if you speak German, will teach you all about the three-week brewing process of Flekovsky Lezak.
As for food, I can only recommend what not to order: beer cheese. Unless you’re a huge fan of two cold mounds of Easy Cheese mixed with onions and paprika, along with a side of over-buttered bread you could break a tooth on.
Upon leaving Prague, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Gone are the quaint 100-person gardens. Hello, stadium-sized courtyards. But what they lack in charm, they make up for with lots of good beer.
In Vienna, take the U-Bahn (subway) to Praterstern, famous for its Ferris wheel and amusement park. Head south through the park to the green fence of Schweizerhaus, which started serving beer in 1766.
Inside, thousands of boisterous beer gardeners drown out the sounds from the park — and make finding a table like battling the mobs at Black Friday sales. When you do locate a free seat, be prepared for gruff waiters. I asked ours to recommend a beer from the list of seven. Instead of offering guidance, he threw his hands in the air and kicked at the loose gravel as he stormed off.
Disgruntled staff members are tolerable thanks to the $4 half liters that include three types of Budweiser Budvar (of no relation to its poor American namesake), Paulaner wheat beer (Hefeweiss), a frothy red brew (Rotes Zwickel), a beer mixed with lemonade (known throughout the countries as Radler) and a toasted, malty lager highlighted with notes of caramel (Grieskirchner Dunkles).
Despite rude waiters, biting mosquitoes, barking dogs and fainting patrons (a woman a few tables down had to be carried out by a pair of waiters), it’s a relatively peaceful place to worship.
You may want to acclimate to big beer gardens as if you were climbing Everest. A good base camp of sorts is Vienna’s Siebenstern Brau Haus, or 7 Stern Brau Haus, behind Museum Quarter at Siebensterngasse 19.
The small garden fits about 100 people, with one giant umbrella basically covering every table. The few flowerpots fail to create a garden feel as the cement walls — standard in European beer gardens — prevail. What doesn’t fail is 7 Stern’s selection of daring concoctions. A must is the spicy Stern Chili. I needed to wash this one down with the brewery’s best beer, Wiener Helles, a hoppy, unfiltered blonde. For a sweet-flavored beer, try the hemp-infused Stern Hanf.
It’s time to head west to Salzburg, Austria, where the Salzach River, hilltop fortresses and oxidized church domes pull you back to an age when monks ran the breweries.
About a mile out of town is Augustiner Braustubl Mulln, a brewery started by monks in 1621. You’ll be filled with doubt upon entering the building’s empty lobby. Have faith. Follow the hallway, walk through doors, down the stairs and past the indoor food market. Upon reaching the second set of stairs, the 1,400-person courtyard will seduce you like the snake and apple from that other garden.
Grab a table, head to the cashier and choose between the liter ($7) and half-liter stein. After paying, take your mug off a long wooden shelf, rinse it under the copper spigots, and hand your receipt to the man pouring the Marzen that flows from a wooden keg. The unfiltered brew tastes almost like a wheat beer infused with oranges, with strong wafts of yeast.
For a simple snack try the pozna: two sausages stuffed into a toasted roll along with onions, mustard, and a few dashes of curry powder. If you have a bigger appetite, the rotisserie chicken is a sure bet, as the burly Austrian woman sweating over the birds confirmed with her repetition of the word “good” as she poked at the flesh.
Well done so far, beer-fearing traveler. Now it’s time to bring the pilgrimage home: Munich.
When Bavarians agreed to join the rest of Germany, it was under one condition: they would be allowed to maintain their beer purity laws. Whether you visit the city’s beer garden complexes or niche boites, the beer will always be as pure as holy water.
My first stop was the Augustiner Brau Haus, another brewery started by monks, this one in 1328. Walk two blocks from the Hackerbrucke stop to Landsbergerstrasse 19 and you’ll see a green fence and orange tables and blue banners, proving that the grounds’ designer was constantly inebriated. But you won’t mind the clashing colors as you fill up an $8 liter of the smooth golden brew, Augustiner Edelstoff, at the self-service station.
There’s no point straying from Edelstoff; not only is it delectable, but it’s hard to convince the bartenders to serve you anything else. When I inquired about the bottled wheat beer, the bartender smirked, shook his head, and with his long index finger called me over to the wooden keg of Edelstoff as though he were offering his dog a treat.
“Best beer in Munich,” he proclaimed and poured me another cold one.
You’ve now worked your way up to Hirschgarten, the largest beer garden in Bavaria. Capacity: 8,000. It’s a short No. 17 tram ride toward Amalienburgstrasse. Get off at Romanplatz, wobble down Gunthestrasse, and enter under the green sign. It’s nothing new: self-service fare, more good beer and more trees. But it’s a nice escape from the city, and you might even spot some of the deer (hirsch) that gave Hirschgarten its name.
Your journey should end with the most beautiful beer garden of the bunch. Enter Munich’s Englischer Gartens, a sprawling expanse that dwarfs New York City’s Central Park. Nestled within the lush park — beyond the surfers who ride the standing river wave at the south end and the nude sunbathers who bear all on the great lawn — is the beer garden at Chinesischer Turm.
You’ll find locals sporting lederhosen, knee-high socks and clogs. The food court is packed with options and — miracle of miracles — they accept credit cards. They serve the pale lager, Helles, as well as a cloudy wheat beer and Urbock Starkbier, an amber brew with an alcohol content nearing 10 percent.
A few things to keep in mind as you sojourn: Beer gardens typically are open from mid-March through October, from about 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., give or take an hour. And they usually flagellate credit card users.
Since beer drinking is now an official religion, I have a confession. I couldn’t bring myself to drink the Radler. Having half my beer replaced with lemonade felt akin to binge eating during a fast.
And remember disciples, you are beer drinkers. You don’t need to walk this pilgrimage. Take the trains.
Photo by Marissa Steinberg.
(First published July 9, 2010 in the Jerusalem Post Magazine)
On the West Side of Manhattan, in a gray-walled waiting room of the Department of Homeland Security, a photograph reminds visitors of the calamity, now almost a decade old, that brought down two towers, left more than 3,000 dead and scarred a nation. But, behind the scenes, in the secured offices, was one agent who helps to remind the world of another tragedy that began more than seven decades ago and left six million dead – the Holocaust.
Conjuring images of the Holocaust brings to mind those dreadful chimneys funneling human smoke over the European continent or shaven, gaunt prisoners standing beside piles of corpses. Some may visualize those pits filled with eyeglasses and shoes, things that belonged to the murdered, now on display in museums. It’s rare that one would equate artists such as Klimt, Cezanne or Degas with the genocide.
But Senior Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the agencies under the DHS umbrella, does. Goldblatt is among the few working to recover stolen Holocaust art and antiquities, though unlike the others, she does so with a badge and a gun.
During Hitler’s rise to power, the Führer, who had failed as an artist, had dreamed up more than just the Final Solution and world domination. It was his goal to plunder art for Germany and purge “degenerate” work – a term Hitler adopted to describe the art of Jews, avant-garde German artists and those whose vision echoed beliefs incompatible with Nazi ideology. All across Europe, museums packed up shop, Nazi castles filled with looted artwork and Jewish art collectors were coerced into selling their collections for a pittance they would never receive.
When the war ended, some works were repatriated; yet numerous masterpieces and valuable religious artifacts were destroyed, looted once more by soldiers or remained missing.
Today, these pieces are reemerging at auctions, on museum walls, or in private collections.
That’s where Goldblatt comes in.
“I’m here to pick up a painting from Bonnie Goldblatt,” a young woman announced while I sat in the waiting room prior to the interview. As it happened, Goldblatt was returning Paul Klee’s Portrait in the Garden, a painting stolen from a Manhattan art gallery 21 years earlier, to the young woman.
After the repatriation, I was escorted into the locked-down compound to meet with Goldblatt. (Along for the interview was the public affairs officer who stayed on to censor questions that would put her cloak-and-dagger tactics at stake. “We’re not going to get into that,” he’d say).
FOR BONNIE GOLDBLATT, art had always been a part of life. As a child, she toured museums with her mother. As an agent, she started in Customs, stopping questionable artwork entering the US. Her first case ended with the recovery of Winslow Homer’s Off Gloucester Harbor, which thieves tried to disguise by painting seagulls and two sailboats onto the original watercolor seascape.
It was 1995 when the Holocaust became a part of her professional canvas. She was reading the arts section of The New York Times when she noticed that a panel would convene in New York to debate ownership rights of art stolen during World War II. Goldblatt attended the conference, acquired the names of those present and sent a letter to the attendees – lawyers, archivists, researchers and art buffs – introducing her program. Those who responded became her sources.
From there, her role at the agency changed. She was no longer just a seizer of artwork, but graduated to become a fixer of past misdeeds, repatriating Holocaust art to the rightful owners.
“It is my heritage. I’m sensitive to all of this… The United States wasn’t involved when [the Holocaust] was happening. As part of the United States government, I recognize…we recognize what needs to be done,” Goldblatt said.
Being stationed in New York City – where numerous survivors settled and works of art with questionable provenances surfaced – allowed her “to develop this niche.” It’s also the site of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office.
Goldblatt’s job is not the cat-and-mouse pursuit that the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair painted of art thieves and detectives.
Think The Old Man and the Sea: Much patience is required to hook the big one. There are online databases to pore over and “war rooms,” a term she uses to describe the massive foreign archives, to scour, all in the hope of finding art whose provenances were erased in the ’30s and ’40s by Nazi invasions, liquidations and murders.
In Goldblatt’s line of work, to hook the big one sometimes means waiting for death.
“Whoever is in possession of the paintings now is more likely to sell them,” she explained, because some of this art has been handed down to heirs oblivious to the painting’s provenance. These looted pieces then start popping up for sale. Furthermore, criminals who are aware of their paintings’ origins are also becoming more brazen and bringing the pieces to market since the last true owners are likely gone.
Goldblatt does, however, have some faith in the inheritors: “As the heirs start receiving the artwork and they do some research and find out where it comes from, they step forward and surrender the object to us.”
But safeguards are in place to prevent the unscrupulous from succeeding. Countries and individuals are registering with stolen art databases, springing Goldblatt into action, dutifully helping to right a 70-year wrong. Each piece she repatriates helps to echo remembrance.
GOLDBLATT’S FIRST Holocaust repatriation was in 2003, when she recovered the Sefer Yetzira, a rare 14th-century kabbalistic manuscript that had been looted by the Nazis from Vienna’s Jewish library and was listed in the auction catalog of Kestenbaum and Company.
The auction house turned the manuscript over to the authorities upon request.
Afterward, there was a big gap in Holocaust repatriations. The agency had undergone many changes after 9/11 and priorities shifted, drawing resources away from art and antiquities work. However, 2009 was the year of Goldblatt’s resurgence. With the help of the US Attorney’s Office, she repatriated four objects that had been looted by the Nazis.
It began with two works once belonging to the late Jewish art dealer Dr. Max Stern, who had been coerced into selling 228 pieces.
First, on April 2, Goldblatt seized Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe from Lawrence Steigrad’s art gallery and returned the piece on Holocaust Remembrance Day later that month. In early May, because of the media coverage of the Bagpipe repatriation, art dealer Richard Feigen voluntarily revealed that he had unknowingly purchased another Stern piece – Ludovico Carracci’s depiction of St. Jerome – in 2000 from the very auction house in Cologne, Germany, that Stern had been forced to consign his collection to in 1937, proceeds that Stern never saw.
Steigrad, who was unaware that Bagpipe had been stolen when he acquired it, recalls Goldblatt’s arrival to his dealership in an e-mail message. She was incognito and “insisted on seeing Bagpipe. I came out to explain that we had just found out [days before] that that particular painting was being returned because we were informed that it was in a forced sale. At that point Bonnie took out her gold badge… I was shocked at the deception and very mad,” Steigrad said about the agent, whom he described as “a very attractive young lady.”
“The work is great and we support it 100 percent,” Steigrad said about Goldblatt’s efforts, but added, “She just should know who the crooks are and treat respectable citizens (art dealers as well) in a more honest way.”
BUT THIS IS the protocol for an undercover agent dealing in a world where patient criminals profit from the stolen fragments of one of the world’s worst crimes. Though Goldblatt may be angering and deceiving art dealers, repatriations like Stern’s have brought her unit recognition.
“The more we do, the better we get,” she told me. “The more we do, the more our name gets out there.”
On November 9, the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht – when Nazis destroyed Jewish shops, homes and synagogues, and battered and arrested Jewish citizens in Germany and Austria – Goldblatt returned a 16th-century two-volume rabbinic Bible to Vienna’s Jewish community. The manuscripts turned up at Kestenbaum’s again, and an undercover Goldblatt arrived. After confirming that the stolen Bible was on the premises by locating the obliterated tag WIEN, Goldblatt met with Kestenbaum, who had recognized her from six years before.
Once again he cooperated and removed the piece from auction so it could begin its journey back home.
One month later, Goldblatt seized a rare Antoine Carte portrait, which depicted a little girl with blonde pigtails, wearing a blue dress, sitting beside her pet rabbit. The painting had belonged to a Jewish family in Belgium who had been forced to flee during the war. The Art Loss Register, an international database of lost and stolen art, antiques, and collectibles, located the painting at a Long Island dealership.
Goldblatt moved in, matching the portrait to a photograph of the same child. Sixty-nine years after it had been stolen, the painting was returned to its owner, who happened to be the timeless little girl in the blue dress.
“The Holocaust left her with such a scar,” Goldblatt said, “that she was scared if she came out with the painting” – to the ceremonial repatriation at the Jewish Museum of Belgium – “it would be stolen again.”
These restitutions, however, were uncomplicated in comparison to the seizure of Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally, which was seized from the Museum of Modern Art in 1998.
“It’s mammoth,” Goldblatt said when describing the case, adding that if all goes in their favor, the “law would set big precedents.”
The battle for Wally was prompted by a special report in The New York Times entitled “The Zealous Collector” by Judith Dobrzynski.
The article, published on December 24, 1997, explained how Lea Bondi Jarray, a Viennese art dealer, was forced to surrender the painting to the Nazis before fleeing for her life. After the war, Mrs. Bondi, as she was known, discovered that Wally had been found by American officials and was being housed in the Belvedere, a palace for Austrian modern art. However, while at the Belvedere, it was accidentally mixed in with another person’s collection. Bondi asked a seemingly trustworthy art collector, Dr. Rudolf Leopold, to retrieve the painting for her. But Leopold purchased it for himself and disregarded Bondi’s pleas for her property.
At the time of the Times report, Wally was on loan to MoMA from the Leopold Museum.
It was set to leave New York for Vienna despite the allegations that it had been looted and never returned to its rightful owner.
“My husband said to me, ‘Can’t you do something about this?’” Goldblatt recalled. So she did. Goldblatt confiscated the portrait, which has sat in storage under court order ever since. The trial is set for July and the lawyers for Bondi’s heirs must prove that the Leopold Museum knew that the painting had been looted when it was acquired.
DESPITE THE IMPASSE, Wally’s seizure has already set the wheels of restitution in motion for plundered paintings like Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Furthermore, it has prompted Austria’s parliament to pass a law that expedites the return of art looted from Jews, from which it appears there are vast amounts in the country’s museums.
“All governments and museums should take a good look at the provenance of their inventory,” Goldblatt suggested. “If they have something they shouldn’t have… they should return it. I don’t think museums should be treated any differently than individuals. They still have a duty to return things to their rightful owner.”
Goldblatt also convenes with the State Department’s Office of Holocaust Issues. “We want to establish guidelines that other countries will adhere to that make it easier for us to identify and possibly return artwork that was taken during the Holocaust,” she explained.
“Bonnie is unlike any civil servant I have encountered before,” said Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register, one of the organizations she often collaborates with. “She is extremely dedicated and passionate about her work…Bonnie’s efforts and those of her art and antiquities team” – who are trained by Goldblatt – “keep the pressure on the art world and the memory of these events alive.”
“Every time I return a Holocaust painting I just get teary-eyed,” Goldblatt said.
“Make no mistake,” Marinello warned, “there is one tough agent behind that gentle demeanor and pleasant smile.”
“There’s a reason why I signed up to be an agent,” said Goldblatt. “I’d like to get it all back.”