The Pianist of Willesden Lane, written by Mona Golabek, is a remarkable and moving one-woman show that explores the story of her mother. She was among the thousands of Jewish children who were saved from the Nazis between 1938 and 1940 thanks to the Kindertransport scheme.
It couldn’t be more timely as we face a new refugee crisis. Children are once again being forced to flee their homes, this time from the bombardments of Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.
The Kindertransport rescue took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and was organised by World Jewish Relief, then called The Central British Fund for German Jewry.
The UK took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig and placed them in foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.
It’s not hard to imagine how bewildered and frightened they must have been, forced to be separated from their family and uprooted at such a young age to a new country with a new culture and language. They were often alone, not knowing what was happening to their loved ones as the war progressed.
Those fears are explored in The Pianist of Willesden Lane which tells the story of Lisa Jura, a prodigy who grew up in Vienna dreaming of making her debut in the Musikverein, playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto, just like her mother did.
Instead in 1938, aged 14, she was forced to flee to UK leaving her own mother, who told her: “Hold on to your music. Let music be your friend.”
The war years saw Lisa housed in a hostel in Willesden Lane in north London with a score of other Kindertransport children. Here she found a piano in the basement and played her beloved Grieg to drown out and to defy the Blitz.
After the war, Lisa married and moved to the US, where she had two daughters – one of whom is Mona Golabek.
Golabek is now 61 and grew up to be a pianist herself. She was inspired to tell her mother’s story when she was booked to perform the same Grieg Piano Concerto, the piece Lisa had so longed to play in Vienna.
I’m not surprised by this Proustian connection. The concerto has an emotional pull at its core. It is both gorgeously lyrical and yet also bittersweet; there is melancholy and yearning woven throughout the melodic contours. Who could ignore such a siren call?
In her show, Golabek performs words and music: “It’s very challenging,” she admits. “But every piece of music tells a story, as my mother used to say; so it seemed relatively comfortable to become a storyteller myself.”
Her mother’s story has been shared among US schoolchildren now – and, Golabek points out: “I’ve seen young people of the 21st century overcome by the story of a Jewish teenager in the Second World War, because they relate to it. Often the students say to me afterwards: ‘If Lisa could do it, I can do it.’
“We’re living in an almost broken world, in many senses. The tragedy of what we see repeating itself in the Syrian refugee crisis is heart-breaking, and the tragedy of seeing disenfranchised people join movements to bring such sadness to others is just terrible. I think we really need these kinds of stories to remind ourselves of man’s humanity to man.”
Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation