In an extraordinary fusion of classical music, narration, theater and video images, Mona Golabek may have found the perfect way to tell the story of her mother, Holocaust survivor and piano prodigy Lisa Jura.
Golabek was in Pittsburgh last week, preforming before more than 600 attendees at the Byham Theater to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The show was sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh in partnership with Classrooms Without Borders.
Recalling that her mother often said that “every piece of music tells a story,” Golabek — a Grammy-nominated concert pianist who has entertained audiences at the Hollywood Bowl and the John F. Kennedy Center alongside major conductors and orchestras — adeptly interspersed her mother’s story with Grieg’s “Concerto in A Minor,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” and other pieces to bring that story to life.
Jura lived in Vienna and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Her life was shattered when the Nazis occupied Austria.
Although Jura’s parents had three daughters, they could only afford one ticket on the Kindertransport — a rescue mission designed by Jews and Christians to allow 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children to flee to Great Britain. Jura, who was 14, was given the ticket.
The last words she heard from her mother as she boarded the train were: “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend in life. I will be with you always through the music,” Golabek told the audience.
Jura eventually found her way to an orphanage in London on Willesden Lane, along with about 30 other Jewish children who had fled Nazi-occupied countries. Although she worked in the day at a factory, at night, she found solace — and brought a bit of joy to the other children — by playing the piano in the basement.
Jura survived the war, and eventually immigrated to the United States. She taught her daughter to play the piano when she was 4, while also recounting stories of her pre-war life, as well as life on Willesden Lane.
Golabek’s performance piece is based on her book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.” Classrooms Without Borders purchased 14,000 copies of the book and distributed them to 38 area schools — including Pittsburgh Public Schools, Community Day School and Baldwin-Whitehall — as part of its Holocaust curriculum. All participating students were given the opportunity to see Golabek perform at additional shows, to which CWB provided subsidies for the students’ bus transportation.
Melissa Haviv, assistant director of CWB, found that Golabek’s book “speaks to the students on so many levels. It inspires them to work through adversity and to make the best of themselves.”
Golabek addressed a group of students while in town, Haviv said, and told them her mother’s story was about “humanity.”
“She said, ‘Look around,’” Haviv recounted. “‘You may have different religions, and not agree with each other, and have different skin colors, but our hearts are all the same color.’”
Telling the story of the Holocaust through the experiences of one individual or one family “puts a face to the history,” Haviv said.
“There is no way for us to grasp the atrocities of World War II,” she explained. “But when we hear a particular story, we can understand the pain, and the fear and the impact that it had on that person and on generations to come. That’s how you use education as a tool.”
The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht came less than two weeks after the Oct. 27 anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life building, Haviv noted.
“We had our own Kristallnacht in Pittsburgh,” she said. “There is no better way to describe what happened at Tree of Life than ‘Kristallnacht.’ Even the physicality of the building was destroyed, there is broken glass everywhere, and a lot of damage to the walls and the pews. We really did suffer a Kristallnacht.”
In a short address to the Byham audience following Golabek’s performance, Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, made a similar observation.
“We lived through our own Kristallnacht — a kristallmorgen — in the United States,” Myers said, describing “broken glass and broken families.”
“Your story uplifted me and gave me hope,” he said to Golabek. “Love will always defeat hate.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at