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The Pianist of Willesden Lane

A daughter brings to life her mother’s story of courage and survival

By Cindy Mindell

Growing up in Vienna, Austria in the 1930s, Lisa Jura always dreamed she’d become a concert pianist. When the Nazis invaded in March 1938, the Jewish girl’s life changed forever. She became a refugee, one of some 10,000 children brought to England before the outbreak of World War II as part of the Kindertransport, a mission to rescue children threatened by the Nazis.

As Jura boarded the train that would take her from her family, her grandmother Malka gave her one last piece of advice: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.” Jura would never see Malka, her parents, or her siblings again.

Jura’s story is told by her daughter, Mona Golabek, and co-author Lee Cohen, in The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport, A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival (Grand Central Publishing, 2002). The book chronicles Jura’s life as a young musician living in a children’s home at 243 Willesden Lane in London during the Blitzkrieg, and follows her after the war to Paris and Los Angeles.

In 2012, Golabek brought her mother’s story to the stage in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which had its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2012. With the help of a grand piano, Golabek weaves together the narrative and music of her mother’s life, describing her journey from Europe to the U.S. and how Jura used her grandmother’s words to survive and thrive.

A Grammy Award nominee, Golabek has received numerous awards, including the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition. She has been the subject of several PBS documentaries, including More Than the Music, which won the grand prize in the 1985 Houston Film Festival, and Concerto for Mona, featuring

Golabek and conductor Zubin Mehta. She has appeared in concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center, and Royal Festival Hall, and with major orchestras and conductors worldwide.

In honor of the spirit that sustained her mother, Golabek founded the non-profit Hold On To Your Music Foundation, where she also serves as president. The organization works to share the story told in The Children of Willesden Lane, through disseminating the book and accompanying educational materials to students and teachers throughout the country.

After two years of critically-acclaimed performances, The Pianist of Willesden Lane will enjoy its East Coast premiere at the Hartford Stage on March 26, running through April 19. Golabek told the Ledger the remarkable story of her mother’s life and how it was brought to the page and stage.

Q: Why did you decide to write the book?

A: The most important reason was that I felt that if I could get the book published, I could inspire thousands of young people with the message contained in the book and the story, which is that if you have something to hold onto in the darkest of times, you can make your way through. In my mother’s case, it was her music.

I also wanted to write the book because it was the story of British Christians who saved the lives of Jewish children. And I’m alive today because of their generosity of spirit. I felt it would be a very important story to bring universal themes that are relevant to today and that is why I have this very strong educational mission through the Hold On To Your Music Foundation. That’s the biggest reason why I wrote it.

Q: How did you learn about your mother’s experiences during World War Two?

A: My mother taught me the piano and in the piano lessons, she told me how each piece of music tells a story. Those piano lessons were the stories of her life. Through the music that she taught me, she taught me the story of her life – through the Grieg Piano Concerto, through the Moonlight Sonata, each of those pieces had a story behind it.

I had a most beloved sister; she was my best friend, Renée, and I lost her at a young age and I ended up raising her children. She was very involved in helping me write the book. We both had lessons with my mother and we made many recordings together.

I had been engaged to play the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and when I woke up the following day I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to play the piece that my mother always told me about. This is the piece that she made her debut in and dreamed about.” I thought, “I want to tell her story.” So, I started writing down all the memories I had from the piano lessons and then I started interviewing folks who knew her.

My co-author, Lee Cohen, is a poet, writer, and filmmaker.

We were brought together through a mutual agent colleague. He went to England and interviewed Hans, the blind boy, he went to Vienna, he sought out kinder. But I did also know certain kinder in America, the children, and I spoke with them.

Q: What were some of the more challenging aspects of writing the book?

A: After a certain point, when we were interviewing, the memories get a little distorted. We combined characters, especially the character of Aaron: he really is based on a combination of two characters, to honor his request for privacy.

Some historical timelines were condensed because of the storyline and we preface all that in the intro. Ninety percent is based on the actual things that happened to my mother at the children’s home [in London]. Sometimes you have to take a couple liberties here and there, artistically. Writing a book has to be the hardest thing in the world. I’ll never do another one as long as I live. It’s monumental, so difficult to do, but a great honor to do it.

Q: Why did you decide to adapt the book into a theater piece? What did that process involve? How did you select the music that you perform? 

A: When the book first came out, my publisher sent me to book signings and conferences and stuff and it would always be accompanied with a piano. I told the story through the piano as Mona, the daughter, telling the story of her mother. My path crossed with the incomparable Hershey Felder. He’s a complete genius; I have no adequate words to describe my admiration for his artistry.

I called him up to ask him for advice. When he became aware of the story and saw a little bit of my performance in the third person, he said that he would take me under his wing and adapt, direct, and produce it and challenged me to put on a wig and become my mother.

He is just brilliant in his concepts. He is very challenging; he’s a taskmaster; he’s a perfectionist; he has the highest standards of artistry that anybody can encounter. It was a very difficult path for me to go down. I didn’t have the training in that world: I’m a concert pianist and a storyteller and this was a whole new world.

As far as the music, this was the music my mother had taught me that told the story of her life. So, a lot of the pieces fell in very naturally and then Hershey very, very carefully positioned these and additional pieces of music to carry the narrative forward.

Q: Are there any especially challenging and/or exhilarating parts of the performance for you?

A: There’s a moment about D-Day and Normandy and the sacrifice of the Allies, set against the Rachmaninoff C-sharp minor Prelude that chills me every time that I do it on stage and I think it chills the audiences because even though set against the background of the Holocaust story, it really isn’t. It’s a World War Two story, it’s a triumph of the human spirit story set against World War Two, during the Blitz in England and these universal themes of who are we on this earth and what are our responsibilities to others in need and the diversity of the landscape and do we inspire tolerance and the triumph of the human spirit against all odds – that’s what this story is about.

Q: How did you become so passionate about your educational mission?

A: Shortly after the book got published, we had the support of the Milken Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation to create major teacher’s resources. They believed in the power of this book to affirm and affect young people in a very inspiring and powerful way. Then we started to do these large citywide reads across America. We just concluded a read for 10,000 students in Los Angeles.

I felt that this story of a Jewish teenager in World War II could break down the walls of antisemitism, racism, all those issues we care about consistently, and especially with the antisemitism rising in an alarming way again, I feel that this story is doing a lot. Young people are responding in the most amazing ways to this story. We did a read in Birmingham, Ala., where mostly African-American students in the 21st century cheered a Jewish teenager in World War II. That’s what this mission is all about. We are set now to do a massive one in Chicago in October and then we have requests from all over the country now to bring it to different cities – San Francisco, Detroit, Dallas.

If I can make a difference and affect one young person…

Two weeks ago, we went into Miramonte High School in the Berkeley area and we interviewed five students who had read the book among the entire classes there, and we asked one 14-year-old girl what the impact of the book was for her. She said, “This book is not telling me what I want to do when I grow up, but the kind of person I wish to be.”

I’m fulfilling my dream. The universe has allowed me to have the privilege of sharing this story, entering the hearts of my audiences through the power of music, which is the secret arrow that enters the heart and delivers the story. There are so many amazing stories out there, all valuable, all profound; we just found a way through the music to be able to do it and so that is really my passion and my goal.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane featuring Mona Golabek will be presented at the Hartford Stage March 26 – April 19. For ticket information: (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

The Connecticut Jewish Ledger is a media sponsor of the performance. For more information about the Hold On To Your Music Foundation: holdontoyourmusic.org.

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