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An Interview with Mona Golabek

An Interview with Mona Golabek

By Brian Zimmerman for Spertus

Like many children in musical families, Mona Golabek learned to play the piano by taking lessons with her mother. But in her case, the music lessons often blurred into life lessons.

“My mother always told me that each piece of music tells a story,” said Ms. Golabek. “So she told me the story of her life through the music she loved.”

Ms. Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, was a child prodigy and Holocaust survivor. When Hitler rose to power in her native Austria, Jura’s parents made the heart -wrenching decision to send her on the Kindertransport, a British rescue mission that saved over 10,000 children from the Nazis.

Jura was transported by train to Willesden Lane, an orphanage in England where she took refuge from the war. Though she was far from the home she grew up in, she never forgot the music she loved, practicing even as the world around her came apart.

“My mother would describe how the bombs came down as she practiced Grieg’s Piano Concerto in the basement,” said Ms. Golabek. “She was determined to keep alive her dream of becoming a concert pianist.”

Today, it is Ms. Golabek who is living her mother’s dream. A Grammy nominee and Steinway artist, she has performed in concert venues around the world, including Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and London’s Royal Festival Hall.

But it was during a performance with the Seattle Symphony that Ms. Golabek’s life took a monumental turn. As she prepared to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto, she was struck by a sobering thought: This was the same piece of music my mother used to practice in her youth. It was a moment she wanted to share with the world.   

“I knew I had to tell her story,” she said.

With the help of journalist Lee Cohen, Ms. Golabek began piecing together the details of her mother’s war-torn life. She reached out to others who had spent their childhoods at Willesden Lane, documenting stories and compiling anecdotes. Fifteen years later, she published a book, The Children of Willesden Lane.

The success of The Children of Willesden Lane started Ms. Golabek on a reading tour across the country. It was during one of her stops that she met Hershey Felder, the actor and director best known for his one-man performances, including the award-winning George Gershwin Alone.

Golabek and Felder worked together to bring Lisa Jura’s story to the stage. Their production, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, comes to Chicago’s Royal George Theatre this April.

For Ms. Golabek, the opportunity to portray her mother onstage is a privilege of a lifetime. Though she is humbled by the responsibility, she knows the performance would make her mother proud.

“I always thought that if I had the opportunity to tell her story, I could inspire others,” she said. “It is a story of holding onto your dreams in the darkest of times.”

“The best part,” said Ms. Golabek, “is the effect it has on young people.”

“We get thousands of letters and emails from young students across America telling me how much this story means to them,” she said. “That’s what gives me the continuing fire to go out there.”

In advance of this highly anticipated run, Ms. Golabek and Mr. Felder will be present a behind-the-scenes look at this poignant theatrical tribute to Lisa Jura and the countless others whose bravery and kindness helped save lives.

The special program, entitled The Creation of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” takes place Monday, April 8 at 7 pm at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave. 

To listen to audio excerpts from the performance, visit our event page.

Friday, March 29, 2013