In 1938 the Nazis annexed Austria and its Jewish population found itself in immediate peril.
While countless Austrian Jews joined the 6 million murdered between 1939 and 1945, Lisa Jura, an aspiring concert pianist of 14, survived the Holocaust. Though the invasion dashed her ambition to perform at the storied Vienna Musikverein concert hall, the Kindertransport, a rescue operation that ferried Jewish children to safety in England, spared her life. Her parents were left behind.
The story of Lisa’s resilience in a British children’s hostel and beyond, an unwavering devotion to music and the kindness of others forms the core of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” a one-woman play opening at the Laguna Playhouse for a two-week run between May 29 and June 9.
It features Jura’s daughter, Mona Golabek, a concert pianist, actress and co-author with Lee Cohen of “The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival,” the book upon which the play is based.
She tells the story from memories her mother retold during piano lessons, set against a background of easily recognizable classical music, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A-minor most prominent among them. “It is the music with which my mother dreamed of making her debut in Vienna,” she said.
Writing the story, Golabek was also driven by a desire to impart history and also instill a love for classical music into younger generations. To that end, she established the Hold on to Your Music Foundation (www.holdontoyourmusic.org). The book has been converted into teaching materials for more than 200,000 school children, she said.
“History is blurring and Holocaust survivors are dying. I asked myself whether their fates would become a footnote in history,” said Golabek. “My challenge was to tell a story that took place 60 years ago and to enter the hearts and souls of people through music.”
The theme of a young girl who holds on to her dream through the darkest of times is universal, she says. There’s also a love story when Lisa chose between a boy at the hostel and an intriguing Jewish French resistance fighter.
Golabek began the book 18 years ago. Before being published, it underwent several metamorphoses, she recalled. Actor Hershey Felder, well-known for writing and performing in biographical plays about composers, adapted Golabek’s work. It was performed at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles last year and earned her a nomination as best solo performer by the Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle.
Felder will direct her at the Playhouse. “Mona tells this heart-rending and ultimately uplifting story the way no one else can. Besides being a remarkable pianist of the highest order and a wonderful storyteller, so is the result of what happens in that story: a mother choses to send her child away ultimately to freedom, giving the child the ability to survive and then prosper,” wrote Felder via e-mail.
Golabek and Felder brought “The Pianist” to the Playhouse two years ago and presented it to an audience of 50 invited guests as a work in progress, said Ann E. Wareham, the Playhouse’s artistic director. “You forget how powerful this story is but when Mona starts playing, it’s pretty breathtaking,” she said.
Though the story possesses personal resonance for her, Golabek sums up the book and play as a creative vehicle that allows her to deploy her many artistic gifts. “I am simply a conduit to what is a very inspirational story,” she said.