Refugee’s daughter brings her music home in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Mona Golabek

Mona Golabek - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to Mona Golabek about returning ‘full circle’ to where her pianist mother fled on the Kinderstransport to tell her story through music.

The refugees in the hostel garden at Willesden Lane just after the war

The refugees in the hostel garden at Willesden Lane just after the war - Credit: Archant

When Mona Golabek plays piano, she is spiritually connecting with her mother - and grandmother before her.

Lisa Jura was a 14-year-old music prodigy when she was forced to leave Vienna in 1938 on the Kindertransport.

At the station, her mother told her: “hold onto the music and remember when you play, I will be with you”.

Mona has turned the story of Lisa’s escape and subsequent life in North West London into an evening of music and storytelling which comes to the St James Theatre this month fresh from success in America.

Lisa’s wartime experiences living with other refugee children at 243 Willesden Lane form much of the narrative, interspersed with the pieces she played; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and Rachmaninov’s C Sharp prelude.

“When mother brought me back from hospital she took my hands to see how wide they could stretch. She started teaching me piano at 4 years and 8 months and would tell me the story of her life in the lessons,” says the New Yorker.

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“She told me about the train ride she took, and the 30 refugee children she lived with for five years in a hostel. Her best friend Gina, shy, gentle Gunter, Aaron the rogue, Hans the blind boy and a gentle giant called Johnny Kingkong who wrote poetry.

“She told me how her music inspired these kids and never forgot what her mother told her at the train station in Vienna; that the music would be her strength.”

Mona first told her mother’s story in her 2003 co-written memoir The Children of Willesden Lane.

“I wrote down everything I could remember from the lessons as a way to tell her story. Her parents had three daughters and only one ticket, they had to make a heartbreaking choice and chose her because they thought the music would give her something to hold on to.

“I definitely loved learning piano but the lessons were one of those times where you feel your mother’s love. Despite what she went through she was very charismatic and positive about finding a way to make something of your life. She instilled in my sister and I the power to stand up for something you believe in. I loved her so deeply, she branded my heart in a way through the story and the music.”

Lisa led a charmed life before the Nazis annexed Austria.

Growing up in the city of great composers, she took “a magic trolley ride” every Friday to her piano lesson and dreamed of making her debut with the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Life in London was very different. She worked long hours sewing in East End garment factories, practising at night on a broken down piano in the hostel cellar because of the blitz.

Mona recounts how house mother Mrs Cohen and the other children loved hearing her play and worked together to help her realise her dream of auditioning for the Royal Academy of Music.

There is also a love story as Lisa falls for a fellow refugee, emigrates to Los Angeles in 1949 and has two daughters.

“There is such a resilience among these children,” says Mona. “They didn’t know fully what was happening to them. They all believed they would be reunited with their parents.

“Music is the secret arrow that enters the hearts of people and because I tell the story through the music each piece tells the story. It’s very emotional.”

In the show, Mona tells how some family members were lost in the Holocaust but others survived.

“I am alive today because of the generosity of the British people, a coalition of British Christians and Jews who created this rescue operation,” says Mona.

“It’s so meaningful for me to be able to say thank you through the music. Given everything happening in the world today it’s poignant to be reminded what are we on this earth for?

“I feel so humbled and moved that I am the daughter coming home and bringing this story full circle.”

The Pianist of Willesden Lane runs January 20 until February 27.