Jewish Journal


August 29, 2002

The Power of Music


"The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival" by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen (Warner Books $23.95).

Vienna, 1938. In the city of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Strauss, 14-year-old musical prodigy Lisa Jura looks forward to a promising career as a concert pianist. Hitler has other plans. With the breaking of glass on Kristallnacht, Jura's dreams are shattered.

Internationally celebrated concert pianist Mona Golabek, with journalist and poet Lee Cohen, has crafted a loving, lyrical tribute to her mother, Lisa Jura, in "The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival."

Jura was one of 10,000 Jewish children saved from the Nazis by the British and sent on the Kindertransport to safety from Eastern Europe. Already being compared to "The Diary of Anne Frank," this simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting tale weaves together the stories that Golabek's mother told her about prewar Austria; the gut-wrenching separation from her family; life at the orphanage on Willesden Lane; and the power of music to help her survive.

As Jura's mother, Malka, puts her on the train, she says the prophetic words that will sustain and inspire her daughter and future generations: "Hold on to your music. Let it be your best friend."

In a world turned ugly, the beauty of music becomes Jura's strength, and, against tremendous odds, with the help and encouragement of the 30 other displaced children at the orphanage, she wins a scholarship to London's Royal Academy.

"Each kid saw something in my mother's music that reminded them of what they had left behind in Czechoslovakia, in Austria, in Germany," says Golabek, a Grammy-nominated artist, "and that's what I tried to do in the story, not only to pay homage to my mother, but to all these kids and to their bravery."

The book opens with Jura's tantalizing daydream of performing in a great concert hall and closes with the fulfillment of that dream, as she makes her debut before an exhilarated crowd. And in between, the pages burst with melody: Jura pounding the cadenza of the Grieg "Piano Concerto" to drown out the sounds of bombs during London's blitz, Jura visualizing Chopin fleeing a flaming Warsaw as she struggles with the somber coda of the "Ballade," Jura remembering her mother's Sabbath candles as she plays the solemn opening of Beethoven's "Pathetique."

"My mom and her mother never cared if a piece is in C major. What really counts is the passion behind it, the image. If it's 'Clair de Lune,' imagine the moon over a desert island. That imagination allowed her to survive the horrors of what she experienced, because a C-major chord will not inspire you through the horrors. It's the moonlight, the idea that maybe the composer wrote it for someone he loved. These things inflamed her imagination, and that's how she inflamed mine."

And now Golabek's book will inflame the imagination of a whole new generation. The Milken Family Foundation, together with Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization that teaches tolerance to 1 million students annually, are working with Golabek to bring the story to schools across the country by developing a companion curriculum guide.

Plans are under way to launch the book in Austria, and make it available to teachers as part of the now mandatory four-year Holocaust education program for students.

The saga of Golabek's 18-year struggle to get the story published is almost as harrowing as her mother's story itself. "It went through many, many writings; many, many ups and downs, starts and disappointments," Golabek says.

Now the accolades and offers are pouring in. On Sept. 24, she will be an honored guest speaker at the California Governor's Conference for Women at the Long Beach Convention Center and will appear at Beth Am on Nov. 17 with her sister, pianist Renee Golabek-Kaye, and Jura's four grandchildren, all musicians: Michele, 16; Sarah, 14; Jonathan, 8; and Rachel, 7. Brandeis University will honor her at the Skirball Cultural Center next March 31.

Last week Golabek was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition and was the subject of a feature story by Andy Meisler of the New York Times. In the planning stages is a concert next year co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Austrian government. And, of course, Golabek is considering movie offers.

On her syndicated radio show, "The Romantic Hours," which highlights stirring writings against a musical backdrop (Saturdays at 10 p.m., 105.1 FM), Golabek often quotes the poet Jean Paul Richter: "Life fades and withers behind us, but of our immortal and sacred soul all that remains is music."

"That was a quote my mother taught me, and the whole reason why I wrote this book and why I created 'The Romantic Hours' was that my mother felt through words and through music our souls would be immortalized."

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