The Children of Willesden Lane

Concert Pianist Mona Golabek’s

inspiring tribute to her mother

photos courtesy of Hold On to Your Music Foundation

Mona Golabek takes a bow following her performance in Boise, Idaho.
Lisa Jura, a 14-year old Jewish girl living in Vienna, was a musical prodigy who hoped to become a concert pianist. Her dreams were shattered when, in 1938, German troops took over her homeland. She became a refugee, sent to England on the Kindertransport—a mission to rescue children threatened by the Nazis. There, in a hostel at 243 Willesden Lane, we learn of Jura’s courageous journey to survive and triumph through her love of music.
Lisa Jura, circa 1945.
The Story

Sporting a red wig, the woman takes her place at the piano and begins to tell her story – or rather, her mother’s story. Her fingers, ever nimble, flutter one second and strike the next, extracting from her instrument the whole range of sounds the telling of such a story demands.

For this is the story of a young girl torn from her family in Vienna and sped by train to the safer shores of Britain. Her name is Lisa Jura. She couldn’t have known that her parents would die in a Nazi concentration camp, but she surely experienced the pain of separation from her two siblings. Of the couple’s three children, it was she who received the single ticket the family had at its disposal, perhaps because as a prodigy of the piano she seemed poised for a future which must not be cut short.

Now, her grown daughter Mona Golabek, her student and survivor, shares the story of that prodigy with the audience.

Mona Golabek performing The Pianist of Willesden Lane in Los Angeles, California.
The Play

Adapting her own book of the same title, Golabek interweaves speaking in the voice of her mother with playing the pieces which her mother taught her on the piano. She begins in Vienna as the fates of Jewish families gradually worsen, moves through the Kinderstransport and on through the Blitzkrieg in London.

Her fingertips alternately caress and storm the keyboard. The sounds of Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin express one moment all the horrors of the time and the next the delicacy of daily joys. As Golabek tells us, however, it is Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto which plays the central role. It had held a special place in the affections of her mother Lisa. She meant to make her professional debut with this work. Many times over the subsequent years she tried to convey to her daughter the ways in which the composer’s melodic passages expressed all the different facets of her life experience.

Daughter Mona demonstrates. The first movement of Grieg’s masterpiece – all fire, bombast, and passion – connects to those now distant, turbulent days in Vienna…the uncertainty, the confusion, the growing dread, the mounting violence.

She turns next to the second movement. Here too is drama and peril. This, mother has assured daughter, tells in musical terms what those foreboding days and terror-filled nights in London were for her. In this movement, too, are passages of tenderness and calm. In these, the pianist finds reference to her mother – “saucy, vivacious, but with a profound piece of her heart missing.”

She moves then to the concerto’s conclusion, its third movement. Here, if there is passion, there is also resolution.  Golabek’s playing is probing and brilliant. She launches into the cadenza.  Her voice soars over the swirling scales as she informs the audience, “My mother told me that when the bombs started in England, she’d go down to the basement of the hostel and pound out the cadenza of the Grieg, determined to drown out the bombs.”

She then finds the power of Rachmaninoff chords illustrative of D-day. In the intricate, repetitive patterns of a Bach partita she uncovers a correlative to her mother’s sewing machine as it spit out uniform after uniform in an army factory.

Rounding out this presentation are archival photos and newsreel footage. These images are projected onto screens within glowing frames which hover over the stage, as if they were so many portraits of cruelty, resistance and triumph in an otherwise darkened gallery.

Golabek’s style is simple and sincere. She tells her mother’s story with integrity – and gets us to imagine Jura’s life in London. Golabek adopts the voices of various men, women and refugee children her mother encountered. She causes us to feel the anxiety of trying to make – and losing – contact with family members back in Austria. Above all she provokes in us the passion she and her mother both developed for the piano, the triumph of career highs and the satisfaction of expressing through those flurries of notes.

The play, The Children of Willesden Lane, opened in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012, and has been performed subsequently in Chicago, Boston, Berkeley , California and New York. The book, on which the play is based, came about when in 1983 Golabek, performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto, found herself thinking, “This was the piece of music that told the story of my mother’s life.” So she set about interviewing her mother’s friends, and with the information and insights she gathered, and with co-author Lee Cohen, began to reconstruct her mother’s life.

Mona Golabek holding her book, The Children of Willesden Lane, at a student performance in Boise, Idaho.
The Musical Repertoire

The musical selections are woven into the fabric of the play. In Golabek’s view, the music tells the story along with her words. She performs selected passages from the following works; Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Clair de lune by Claude Debussy, Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 2, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s  Prelude in C-sharp minor, Opus 3, No. 2, These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) by Strachey & Maschwitz and George Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band.

After the Show

Following the performance, Mona Golabek will be available for a book signing. The Children of Willesden Lane, on which the play is based, will be available for purchase.  Refreshments and desserts will be served in the lobby.

The book cover of The Children of Willesden Lane. 
About the Artist

A native of Los Angeles, Mona Golabek was taught piano primarily by her mother, concert pianist Lisa Jura. This takes on the feeling of a family tradition when we realize that Jura was taught piano by her mother in Austria. In speaking of her musical training, Mona Golabek says, “I studied with several outstanding pianists such as Leon Fleisher, Reginald Stewart and Joanna Graudan. But my mother was my true teacher and inspiration.”

That training led to early successes as winner of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1976, a New York City recital debut at Hunter College and an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Her concert appearances have included performances with major orchestras and conductors around the world. The Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington D.C. and Royal Festival Hall in London are just three locations at which she has given solo recitals. The subject of a PBS documentary, More Than the Music, she can also count a Grammy nomination to her credit.

In 1992, she and her sister Renee, a pianist as well, put together a recording of The Carnival of the Animals by French composer Camille Saint-Saens, featuring some of poet Ogden Nash’s animal verses. The two sisters have also made a recording of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite with actress Meryl Streep as narrator.

Ms. Golabek hosts her own classical music radio program The Romantic Hours, a mashup of love letters, romantic poetry and classical music. She has also established the Hold On To Your Music Foundation. Through it, Golabek looks to expand awareness of the ethical implications of world events such as the Holocaust, and the power of music and the arts to embolden the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Duly Noted

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in conjunction with Phoenix Holocaust Survivors Association and Generations After are sponsoring Mona Golabek’s performance.

Proceeds from this event will help to support further community engagement programs.

The performance, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, coincides with this year’s “Holocaust Days of Remembrance” and ushers in the 6th annual Genocide Awareness Week at Scottsdale Community College, April 9-14.


The Children of Willesden Lane
April 4 at 7 p.m.
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts