THE CHILDREN OF WILLESDEN LANE
Beyond the Kindertransport:
A Memoir of Music, Love
By Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Warner. 272 pp. $23.95
This is a deeply moving and heartfelt tale of a Jewish child prodigy named Lisa Jura, who lived in Nazi-occupied Vienna and went to England in the Kindertransport resettlement of World War II. Lisa was the middle of three sisters. Her family lived through the horrors of the Nazi occupation, including Kristallnacht, when Jews were beaten in the streets, their stores and homes ransacked and their books and possessions burned. Afterward, curfews were imposed; Jews were not allowed on the streets or in most public places, nor could they travel outside Vienna. There was one hope: Jewish children could go abroad on certain trains.
Lisa's parents, Malka and Abraham, had a terrible decision to make -- a kind of Sophie's Choice. A cousin in England had room for only one of the sisters, and in any case the family's funds were limited. Rosie, the eldest, was over 18 years old and therefore ineligible for the transport. So the choice was between the other two sisters, Sonia and Lisa. Lisa was chosen because she was "strong" and had her music to "guide" her -- indeed, she had a passion for the piano. At 14, she was sent to England in tears.
Mona Golabek, a concert pianist and host of the popular radio program "The Romantic Hours," is the daughter of Lisa Jura Golabek and the co-author of this book. She tells her mother's story with sensitivity and love. In her author's note, she states that she realizes now that some of her mother's recollections might have been "clouded by time. In places where there were gaps in her memory, my present-day research has filled them in. The spirit of the story is all hers." One can assume, moreover, that an artist's penchant for dreaming and imagination might have shaped the stories, creating an occasional "Fantaisie Impromptu," to use Golabek's term for a scene placed in a musical context. Be that as it may, the facts are not always the whole truth, and this story spins out beautifully and poignantly, at times bringing tears to the reader's eyes. The characters are expertly drawn, and dramatic tension remains high until the end, when Lisa makes her London debut at Wigmore Hall at the age of 21.
The title derives from a hostel for refugee children at 243 Willesden Lane in London to which Lisa was sent when her father's cousins were ultimately unable to take her in. Fortunately for her, there was a piano on the premises, on which she practiced after completing her tedious daytime jobs. Her talent, discipline and passion for music, which her mother had helped instill, became her tools for survival. When German bombs started to rain over London, she would keep playing, inspiring all who heard her; the beauty of the music made them forget their fears, at least temporarily.
Seeing the horrors of war through the eyes of teenagers living in England makes for compelling reading. The British attitudes -- the stiff upper lip, the humor, the absolute conviction of ultimate victory -- had a strong effect on Lisa and her friends, giving them hope in a time of need.
The last thing Lisa's mother gave her before the girl boarded the train in Vienna was a photo of herself, inscribed "So you will never forget your mother." Earlier, she had told her daughter, "Let your music be your best friend and remember that I love you." That love has obviously been transmitted to the third generation. Mona Golabek says that her mother was her greatest teacher and the person responsible for the careers of two concert pianists -- herself and her sister Renee. This book is a testament to maternal love. *
Byron Janis is a concert pianist and composer.