I happen to live in Willesden in the UK and know Willesden Lane well, so I was rather surprised when my husband came back from a walk with one of our local historians and told me that there was a house in Willesden Lane which had been once used as a Children’s Hostel for the Kindertransport.
Now I don’t know how many people know about the Kindertransport – especially outside the UK, so I thought I should get some information about it, before telling you more about Willesden Lane.
Kindertransport was an attempt to remove children from an increasingly perilous situation whereby war looked almost inevitable.
The first Kindertransport arrived at Harwich, England on December 2, 1938, bringing 196 children from a Berlin Jewish orphanage burned by the Nazis during the night of November 9. Most of the transports left by train from Vienna, Berlin, Prague and other major cities (children from small towns travelled to meet the transports), crossed the Dutch and Belgian borders, and went on by ship to England. Hundreds of children remained in Belgium and Holland.
The transports ended with the outbreak of war in September 1939.
One very last transport left on the freighter Bodegraven from Ymuiden on May 14, 1940 – the day Rotterdam was bombed, one day before Holland surrendered – raked by gunfire from German warplanes. The eighty children on deck had been brought by earlier transports to imagined safety in Holland.
Altogether, though exact figures are unknown, the Kindertransports saved around 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. None were accompanied by their parents; a few were babies carried by other children. Though these children were separated from their families, many of them would have faced the same fate as their families if they had stayed. The vast majority of the Kindertransport children never saw their parents again. When the children arrived in the UK they were allocated to foster homes where they could be found or to hostels or to work, if they were old enough, in a household, some boarded at schools such as Oswestry in Shropshire – few however could speak English.
The definition of ‘old enough’ of course, was a lot more fluid in 1939 than we would think today. Some were treated very well by their employers or foster families and some were not as is often the case with what were, effectively, orphan children with no responsible adult to look after them.
To get into the UK each child had to have a sponsor. The cost of food, housing, education, and eventual emigration were paid for by the sponsors, not the British Government. Some of the sponsors were private individuals and families, other children were sponsored by the Refugee Children’s Movement.
A number of the children joined the armed forces based in the UK once they had reached the age of 18 effectively taking their fight back against Nazi Germany. It is thought that between 20% and 25% of all those involved in the Kindertransport project later left the UK and emigrated to America or Canada.
It seems that Willesden Lane had one of the hostels to which the older children were sent and from which they would then go to work, many of the girls working in the East End of London, with Jewish tailoring firms making army uniforms and the like.
The story of the hostel is told in the book: The Children of Willesden Lane.
Rather than tell about the book, which led me to be very emotional at times I am going to quote to you from two reviews of the play which was created by the daughter of one of the children who came to England from Vienna – Lisa Jura – and then lived in Willesden Lane. She later became a famous concert pianist and it is her story that her daughter tells. As far as I know the play has never yet been performed in the UK but has recently toured the US.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
Posted By Tulis McCall on Jul 23, 2014
Mona Golabek stars in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, adapted (from the book The Children of Willesden Lane) and directed by Hershey Felder, which launched the inaugural 5A Season at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
“Hands. How easily we take them for granted. They are first and foremost utilitarian. But do not underestimate them. In a New York Minute they can transform into instruments of magic.
Such is the case in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Mona Golabek is not an actor by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is she a she a gifted storyteller, sorry to say. What she does have is an astonishing story to tell as well as a passion for sharing the life-saving gift of classical music. Golabek is also smart – she wisely chooses the most iconic pieces so that those of us not familiar with Classical music’s many intricacies can hear this tale of dedication and courage without being distracted.
Lisa Jura, Golabek’s mother, was born in Vienna in 1924. Her journey from there to becoming a United States Citizen is the subject of this story. Through Jura we are taken into the back kitchen of WWII. Through Jura we focus, not on battlefields and soldiers but on the life of a teenager who learns to fend for herself. It is an extraordinary story.
In 1938 Vienna, Jura is on the bus going to her most important appointment of the week. She is on her way to her piano lesson with Professor Isselis who delivers the very sad news that, because of a new ordinance that forbids the teaching of Jewish children he must terminate Jura as a student. Effective immediately. … No explanation. … Just an immediate hello and goodbye. The 14 year old Lisa is shattered, and for the first time she notices the soldiers and their armbands.
For a time Lisa’s mother takes over the lessons, sharing fascinating secrets about creating a beautiful chord – the secret is layers. Ultimately November 9 arrives. It is the night of Kristalnacht .. Mr. Jura’s tailor shop is ransacked, but he manages to escape with .. a single ticket for the Kindertransport t… The thought of separating the family by choosing one daughter of three to go is too overwhelming. Lisa turns to her piano ..when the others heard her play .., they realized that she had to be the one to go.
She left that night and remembers her mother’s final words – to always hold on to the music, and that her mother would be with her every step of the way. Lisa left with her music and a picture of her mother, and never saw her parents again.
In England the cousin to whom she was being sent turned out to have no room for her, so Lisa was sent to Bloomsbury House, a .. clearing station for the children. From there she was sent to a manor house where she spent six months as a maid without playing. Deciding that living with a piano that she could not touch was out of the question the 15 year old girl biked ..to Brighton .., bought a ticket to London and presented herself .. again at Bloomsbury House.
This time she was sent to a sort of hostel on Willesden Lane. It was here her life changed once again, and this time for the better. As well as a wonderful caretaker, Mrs. Cohen, the house also sported a piano that Jura .. was encouraged to play.
The next few years were filled with life as a war seamstress, tales of the blackout, love, and always the piano. Eventually, .. Lisa applied to the London Royal Academy of Music. Her fellow lodgers at Willesden Lane became her coaches – timekeepers, surprise quizzes, drill sergeants. After the briefest of auditions she was accepted, and for the first time in four years had ..another instructor.
There followed the debut on scholarship (that she always envisioned) as well as romance and marriage to a French soldier she met while entertaining the soldiers at the Howard hotel, and a reunion with her sisters.
Mona has a wonderful ability to talk while she is playing, and the effect is nearly dizzying. It is in these moments (as opposed to the times when she leaves the piano to step downstage and speak to us) that she is her most relaxed and warm. The anecdotes and bits of the tale are delivered over the music with ease and grace.
In the end, while half of the audience is snuffling and weeping, she thanks her mother and grandparents and salutes every mother and father who had the courage to save their child by saying goodbye. She sits again at the piano and plays the Grieg Concerto in A Minor that her own mother played nearly 50 years ago at her London debut. It is a deeply moving scene.
But, in the end, the story of Lisa Jura makes it through just as she herself did – unscathed and intact.
THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE – Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, Adapted and Directed by Hershey Felder. at 59E59 Theaters (Elysabeth Kleinhans, Artistic Director; Peter Tear, Executive Director) (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). It is produced by Geffen Playhouse, in association with Eighty-Eight Entertainment and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
The narrator in this tale of exceptional humanity and courage is young Lisa Jura. It is based on the book, The Children of Willesden Lane—Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir Of Music, Love, and Survival, written by Lisa’s daughter, Mona Golabek, and Lee Cohen. It is also performed in Lisa’s voice by Golabek, who not only carries the listener through her mother’s astonishing tale, but also performs every piece of music that bears significance to the young Miss Jura throughout her years as a refugee in London.
The story begins in Vienna in 1938. Lisa is just a schoolgirl, one of three born to her parents, Malka and Abraham Jura. What sets her apart is her impressive love and devotion to music and her precocious talents playing the piano. When the tale begins, we already know that things have changed for Lisa and her family in Vienna; it’s just the beginning of the nightmare that would engulf the continent and then the world for years to come. To a girl of 14 the most obvious signs of this change are the number of soldiers occupying the city and the behavior of her beloved piano teacher, Professor Isselis.
When he answers the knock on his door, he says nothing and does nothing. He doesn’t even look her in the eye. He may see the great injustice that he has been told he must perform, but he performs it all the same. He is a kind man, but not a brave one. He sends her away, saying that he can no longer teach her because she is a Jew. “You have a remarkable gift, and no matter what happens in your life, please never forget that.” She doesn’t, either. When she returns home heartbroken, her mother, also a pianist, helps her through the first bars of Grieg concerto.
Soon there are more signs of trouble, and the soldiers in the streets begin to cause trouble in the Jewish neighborhood. Then there is Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and Jewish homes and business are attacked en masse, many of them burned to the ground, the broken windows giving the night its infamous name.
One Friday night, her father is attacked outside of his block of flats while returning from a gambling night. He is stripped and shamed by some passing soldiers, beaten while his daughter watched helplessly from the window. When he is allowed to get dressed, someone else has stolen his coat. He begs only that the person give him the paper in the coat’s pocket. When he finally comes through the door, the family learns about the paper and its magic. It’s a pass for one child aboard the now-famous Kindertransport.
So begins a journey that takes Lisa not only to England, but also into womanhood. After a rough start, her uncle refusing to take her in, and six months at work in a stuffy and restrictive countryside manor, Lisa flees back to England looking for a new start. She is entrusted to a Mrs. Cohen on Willesden Lane in the north of London. Mrs. Cohen’s hostel is full of charges, all refugees from the Kindertransport, her “Sardines.”
Lisa makes new friends among the other children, some of them nearly on the cusp of adulthood. She takes on a job as a seamstress and eventually finds her way to an audition for a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music, an incredibly prestigious school for the arts. She thinks of her family constantly, continuing to write letters and always praying that one day one of them will get a reply. Instead, they begin to be returned to her, stamped as undeliverable. She must get on with her life and wait to see what time will bring.
Mona Golabek is a fine storyteller, but even if she weren’t it wouldn’t be difficult to get engrossed by the highs and lows of Lisa’s story. In her hands her mother’s experiences are easy to imagine, though it’s impossible to truly understand the damage of war unless you have lived through it. Lisa’s resilience is astounding, her story remarkable, and it’s made all the more visceral by the emotion in her daughter’s telling.
Lisa was an exceptional pianist, but she also raised an exceptional pianist. Mona Golabek performs close to a dozen pieces throughout the play, all of them with a virtuoso’s skill and emotion. Each piece is poignant and stirring, adding even more emotion to an emotionally complex tale. You can feel the power of the music, feel the beauty borne into this world by its greatest composers—feel them right to the core—as Golabek’s hands fly seemingly effortlessly over the keys. She is breathtakingly talented. And there’s not a sheet of music to be seen; it’s all laid out in her memory and in her heart. It is written into the very fabric of her DNA.