How music saved my mother’s life: West End show tells story of Kindertransport prodigy

How music saved my mother’s life: West End show tells story of Kindertransport prodigy

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Mona Golabek plays her mother Lisa Jura in The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Mona Golabek plays her mother Lisa Jura in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

The daughter of a musician sent to London on the Kindertransport is now starring in a tribute to her mother, writes Francine Wolfisz

Mona Golabek plays her mother, Kindertransport passenger Lisa Jura, in The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Mona Golabek plays her mother Lisa Jura in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Possessing just one ticket, Malka and Abraham Jura faced an horrific, real-life Sophie’s Choice – which of their three daughters should they send away from Vienna to London on the Kindertransport?

Filled with heartbreak, they selected Lisa, a 14-year-old prodigy pianist, believing London was the best place for her to continue her music studies – as well as offering her a chance to survive.

On the station platform, Jura’s mother bade her farewell, hugged her and whispered: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.” Arriving in the British capital in 1938, Jura was sent with 30 other Kinder to a hostel at 243 Willesden Lane – where to her delight she found a piano.

By day, she worked in a factory making army uniforms. By night, she played the piano to the other children, using music to provide them with solace during a time of great uncertainty – as well as to continue her dream of one day becoming a concert pianist.

Her parents perished at Auschwitz. Now her remarkable story of survival and hope has arrived on the London stage with a one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, in which Jura is played by her real-life daughter, Mona Golabek.

Directed by Hershey Felder, the show is based on Golabek’s book The Children of Willesden Lane, which she co-authored with Lee Cohen and includes anecdotes about her mother’s life in England, as well as interviews with the other Kinder she lived with.

Lisa Jura escaped Vienna on the Kindertransport
Lisa Jura escaped Vienna on the Kindertransport

The Los Angeles-based performer, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and also became a concert pianist, tells me it is “a dream come true” to bring the show back to the city that saved her mother’s life and proclaims: “I am alive today because of the generosity of the British people.”

She adds: “My mother loved to tell me about the good people of Willesden Green and the indomitable British spirit. “She would tell me how after a night of bombing, she would see them making their way through the rubble of London on their way to work.

“Many of the other Kinder also told me about the generosity of the British people. One recalls that he didn’t really have any money and so when he got on a bus, the driver would simply look the other way. Others told me that they never really had much to eat and sometimes a few of the shopkeepers would let the children come in and they would hand them sweets. My mother always spoke with the greatest affection about her time in England.”

Golabek first began hearing about her mother’s wartime experiences from a young age. The 61-year-old recalls that Jura, who went on to win a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, would share memories of her past during piano lessons at home with her daughter.

“My mother would say that each piece of music tells a story. So in between Bach and Beethoven, I would hear about Jonny King Kong, who was so big and tall, and about Hans the blind boy, who lost his sight during an anti-Semitic brawl in Berlin. He would wait faithfully for my mother to come home from the factory, so he could listen to her play the piano.

“She told me about the boy she fell in love with, Aaron, who was a bit of a rogue, and she told me about Gina, her best friend, who taught her how to put make-up on. “These kids grew up together, were brothers and sisters, sweethearts to one another. They became parents to one another, because no one really knew what was going on and they only had each other.” Throughout the war years, Jura held on to her music, just as her mother had told her to, and this became her “salvation”.

“That’s really the whole basis of the story,” adds Golabek. “If you have something to hold on to – whether its music, poetry or your faith – you can find your way through even the darkest of times. And for my mother, it was her music.”

For Golabek, music is also her passion but so too is Holocaust education. In 2003, she established the Hold On To Your Music Foundation, to spread the message of her mother’s story and has collaborated with the USC Shoah Foundation and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Her book has now been adopted into the school curriculum in 27 states in the USA, while the show has received critical acclaim and enjoyed sell-out runs in New York, Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego. “As you can imagine, there were severe losses, but there were also triumphs,”Golabek continues.

“I think why this story has resonated with people so much is that it’s ultimately a story of triumph and spirit on many levels. “It’s not just about a young girl coming of age and fulfilling a dream that began in Vienna, but it is also the triumph of humankind.”

The Pianist of Willesden Lane runs until Saturday, 27 February at St James Theatre, Palace Street, London. Details: or 0844 2642140.

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