Dallas — We’re all dreamers as children. Enter a 13-year-old girl in Vienna, who dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her dreams almost go unfulfilled with the advent of World War II, but passage aboard the Kindertransport ensures that she will go on to live out that dream.
That girl was Lisa Jura, and her daughter, Mona Golabek, has told the inspirational story in the play The Pianist of Willesden Lane. An abridged version will be performed Wednesday, June 10 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre, in conjunction with the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance.
Golabek followed in her mother’s footsteps as a pianist. For Golabek, the story of her mother was so inspirational and moving that she knew it had to be shared with the world. The story is chronicled in her 2003 book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival. Co-written with Lee Cohen, Mona said the process took many years, but was one she felt others needed to read.
“I always dreamed that if I could get it published, I could inspire a lot of people with this story, a lot of young people especially,” Golabek says. “[This is] a story of a message that if you have something to hold on to in the darkest of times, you’ll make your way through. That’s what I wanted to do, and I never gave up.”
After its publication, Golabek made several trips for book signings and presentations. Often, a piano was nearby, and she would begin to play.
“That’s what really captured their hearts,” Golabek says, “because the music is an essential character in the story.”
People also started to tell Golabek that they saw the story as something that could be adapted to the stage. She later crossed paths with producer-director Hershey Felder, and he was immediately taken with a creative idea for the book.
“He fell in love with the story,” Golabek says. “He brought his magic. He was the one who came to the course. He brought his magic and vision, and just extraordinary artistry to envision a theatrical play with the right kind of sets, the right intercutting, taking the book and adapting it for the stage. He challenged me to put on a red wig and become my mother, play the characters. That really was what the path was. We opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and from there it went from one city to the next.”
The Pianist at Willesden Lane has now toured across the country, and Golabek calls the whole experience “thrilling.” Through her foundation Hold On To Your Music, she has organized several city-wide reads of the book, which she believes to be her biggest mission in telling her mother’s story. She hopes to one day bring a citywide read of the book to Dallas.
Although the Kindertransport is a large part of the book and her mother’s story, Golabek sees the broader themes of racism and discrimination as being central, and feels that readers connect with many of the struggles her mother faced.
“When I do the show, so many people stand in line to get a copy of the book,” Golabek says. “They want to share what they felt about seeing the show. They want to tell me that this story is their story, it’s so universal that [it] really speaks to them. This has been the greatest privilege, to see the reaction.
“Not only does it address these ethical issues that we all face, but what do you hold on to in the darkest of times? Young students today really relate to the story in a very powerful way. They face many of the same challenges. It’s a wild world. As we grow this story on the national and international level, we know that there are so many young people coming to our country who are facing these kinds of issues, young people from broken families. What do they hold on to? And in our small way, our humble way, we’re trying to do this with this story.”
While some are unaware of the events that took place during the Holocaust, Golabek feels that learning about it through this story allows for us to pave the way for equality and goodwill toward each other.
“I think most of us don’t know [about Kindertransport],” Golabek says. “It’s been startling for me to go across the country and do presentations for students who don’t even know about the Holocaust, let alone Kindertransport. A lot of people don’t know about it, and that’s why I think it needs to be celebrated, this rescue operation done by British Christians to save the lives of Jewish children. I’m alive today because someone cared enough to do that, to bring my mother over. I think we need to applaud that, we need to really take a look at that. Now we’re here altogether. Break down the barriers that divide us.”
The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. A VIP reception will follow at 9:15 p.m.