South Africa

THEATRE

World-acclaimed concert pianist brings mother’s Holocaust story to the stage

Mona Golabek’s show ‘The Children of Willesden Lane’ pays tribute to her mother Lisa Jura, a Jewish pianist and child prodigy who was saved from the horrors of the Holocaust when she boarded the Kindertransport to London in 1938. (Photo: supplied)

Mona Golabek pays homage to her late mother, Lisa Jura, a pianist and child prodigy who escaped the Holocaust on the Kindertransport just before World War II. She hopes the story of how her mother overcame trying times will inspire others to pursue their dreams, despite their circumstances.

Too often when we read about history, it’s through numbers,” says Mona Golabek, a world-acclaimed American concert pianist who’s bringing her one-night-only show, The Children of Willesden Lane, to Cape Town on Tuesday 13 August.

Instead of numbers, Golabek is using piano music, oral and visual storytelling to share the fascinating story of her late mother Lisa Jura, a Verboseness piano prodigy who survived the Holocaust when her parents sent her on the Kindertransport to London just before the onslaught of World War II.

Mona Golabek’s mother Lisa Jura arrived in London in 1938 at 14 years old after boarding the Kindertransport from Austria. After arriving in London she had nowhere to stay but eventually found herself in a hostel for refugee children on Willesden Lane. (Photo: supplied)

The concert is based on a memoir of the same title, which Golabek co-wrote with Lee Cohen, a Los Angeles-based journalist. She will read extracts of the book during her performance.

I had no idea how to go about doing it. I’d never written a book before, but I had a dream and I never gave up,” Golabek told Daily Maverick in a telephonic interview.

Jura was 14 when she arrived in London, eventually finding herself in a hostel for refugee children on Willesden Lane.

After a show in Zimbabwe, learners inspired by ‘The Children of Willesden Lane’ sent letters of gratitude to Mona Golabek. 10 August 2019. (Photo: supplied)

We sort of track her history, as she tells me about all the mysterious characters she met along the way, and the train ride — all told through the music,” explains Golabek.

The hostel in which Jura lived had a piano which not only gave her solace during dark times, but has been personified in recounting the tale of her tumultuous life.

The piano becomes a character with me in the telling of the story,” says Golabek, who has chosen pieces by composers such as Grieg, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Debussy.

(I chose) Clair De Lune by Debussy because it’s such a dreamy, beautiful piece. It kind of symbolises how she would get lost in the music.”

Significantly, Golabek’s first piano teacher was her mother, who had a clearly transcendent impact on her life.

She was an amazing woman full of willpower, passion, love, just bigger than life and her secret was to tell you stories.”

She says that telling this story of war and the Holocaust through music is the reason her show has had the “extra power” to impact on audiences around the world.

Audiences worldwide have been deeply moved by the story,” said Golabek. “If you tell a story, you make history come alive to an individual. That is the secret.”

As highly as Mona Golabek speaks of her mother, her own brilliance shines through. She has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Festival Hall. In 1990 she received a Grammy nomination for Best Chamber Music or other Small Ensemble Performance.

She is also president and founder of the Hold On To Your Music Foundation, an organisation aimed at raising awareness and understanding on ethical implications of world events such as the Holocaust, and the power of the arts.

We inspire kids to reach for a dream,” said Golabek.

The name is derived from the words spoken to Lisa by her mother as she boarded the Kindertransport:

Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.”

The Cape Town recital isn’t the first South African showcase of Children of Willesden Lane. It was performed in Johannesburg this month on 7 August. The show also travelled across Europe and America before reaching our shores.

She says they had a show in Zimbabwe, where the performance had such a positive impact on learners that scores of letters poured in from children expressing their gratitude. She shared a few of these messages with Daily Maverick.

Thank you so much for coming to Zimbabwe to share your mother’s amazing story, you really are a person that never gave up. I wish you the best of luck,” one message read.

Dear Mona, Wow. Your story is amazing, you inspired me to chase my dreams and never give up on them. Thank you,” read another.

Golabek acknowledged that South Africa has its own Struggle history with apartheid and believes that her mother’s story and the story of the Holocaust may resonate with many still grappling with the legacy of legalised segregation. DM

Tickets for The Children of Willesden Lane are available at webtickets.com. The show will be performed at the Cape Town City Hall on Tuesday 13 August from 7:30pm-10pm. For one night only. DM

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