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Lisa of Willesden Lane
A True Story of Music and Survival During World War II
By Mona Golabek
By Lee Cohen
Adapted by Sarah J. Robbins
Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback $6.99 $9.99 CAD
- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 12, 2021. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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A Note from the Author
My mother, Lisa, was my best friend and my teacher. She taught my sister, Renée, and me to play the piano. She would always say to me, “Mona, each piece of music tells a story.” And in those piano lessons, she told me the story of her life.
Lisa was a young refugee from Austria who boarded the Kindertransport and left her home and her family just before World War II. She never forgot what her mother (my grandmother) told her on a cold December day in 1938 at the Vienna train station: “Lisa, hold on to your music, and I will be with you every step of the way.”
My mother found a new home and new friends in a Jewish hostel on Willesden Lane in the northern part of London. As the war broke out, she fueled Britain’s war efforts with long hours at the sewing machine in the East End factories. As bombs from the Blitz rained down on London at night, she pounded out the chords of the Grieg piano concerto, determined to keep her promise. That music gave her the strength to face an uncertain future, while inspiring all the other Jewish refugee children who lived in the hostel with her.
I decided to write this book to help readers think through important questions: What do you hold on to in life when facing great challenges? What is our purpose? How do we help our fellow humankind?
I have shared this story with thousands of students across the globe, and in turn, young people have shared the impact of the story on them. “We connect with Lisa and the violence she faced,” a high school student from Chicago wrote. But the student added, “If Lisa can do it, I can do it.” During a school visit in California, a student told me, “I don’t know yet what I want to do with my life, but this book has helped me decide what kind of person I want to be.”
Like my mother, the heroine of this book, I hope that others will discover the courage to be a hero in their own lives.
Lisa Jura boarded the streetcar and headed across the city for her piano lesson with Professor Isseles.
She loved the ride.
Every Sunday since her tenth birthday, the fourteen-year-old girl left her home in the Jewish section of Vienna, Austria, and made the trip. It felt like going back in time, to a city of grand palaces and great composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Lisa dreamed of living up to their legacy.
As the streetcar passed Symphony Hall, Lisa closed her eyes and imagined sitting at the piano in the great auditorium. She straightened her back as her mother had taught her, took a breath, and pretended to play.
Lisa’s daydream ended when she heard the driver calling out her stop. His words were strange and different: “Meistersinger Street.” Why hadn’t he said, “Mahler Street,” as usual?
Lisa climbed down into the great plaza to see that all the street signs had changed. The Nazis, the prejudiced political party that now held power in Austria, did not want such a grand avenue named after Gustav Mahler, a Jewish composer.
At the professor’s old stone building, Lisa was surprised to see a German soldier blocking the doorway.
“What business do you have here?” he asked coldly.
“I have a piano lesson,” she replied, trying not to be frightened.
From the second-floor window, the professor waved to say that it was all right for the girl to come up. Frowning, the soldier allowed Lisa to pass.
Lisa was relieved to see Professor Isseles. For the next hour, she could forget everything and be a part of the music she loved.
Placing the score of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the music stand, she sat on the worn piano bench and began to play. The white-haired professor followed along with his copy of the music.
For most of the hour Lisa played, the old man sat in silence. She’d hoped he would smile. After all, he’d said she was his best student. Why did he look so upset? Was she playing that badly?
“I am sorry, Miss Jura. But there is a new law,” he said slowly when she had finished. “It is now a crime to teach a Jewish child.”
Stunned, Lisa felt tears rising.
“I am not a brave man,” he said softly. “I can no longer teach you. I am so sorry.”
He picked up a thin gold chain that held a tiny charm in the shape of a piano.
“Never forget your remarkable gift, Lisa,” he said softly, fastening the gold chain around her neck. “Perhaps this will help you to remember the music we shared here.”
Lisa feared that she would never see her teacher again. She thanked him, collected her things, and then turned and ran.
Lisa shivered in the cold November wind. Why were the Nazi Germans telling Austrians what they could or couldn’t do? It wasn’t fair, and why were the Austrians letting them?
She couldn’t wait to get back to Franzensbrücken Street in her Jewish neighborhood. There, everyone knew her as the little girl who played the piano. The neighbors who could hear her music in the butcher’s shop or the bakery called her by that special word: a prodigy.
Music was Lisa’s whole world: an escape from the run-down flats, shops, and markets. And now, it was the most important escape of all: from the Nazis.
When Lisa got home, her mother, Malka, sensed that something was wrong. She held her daughter, who was crying. Malka guessed what must have happened. “Is it Professor Isseles?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, I taught you piano before. I will teach you again,” Malka said, even though both of them knew that Lisa could now play more complicated music than her mother could.
“Come,” Malka said. She pulled out some music by the composer Chopin and sat at the piano. “I’ll play the right hand, you play the left,” she said.
Lisa played the four-four rhythm of the marching, repeating chords. After she’d mastered the left hand, she took over from her mother, who watched proudly.
When they finished, Lisa went to her room and cried into her pillow. She soon felt a warm hand on her shoulder: her twenty-year-old sister, Rosie. “Don’t cry, Lisa,” she urged. “Let me show you something I just learned.” She led Lisa into the bathroom, where makeup was spread out on the bathroom dresser. “I’ll show you a new way to do your lips.”
Their twelve-year-old sister, Sonia, burst through the door. “Look at Lisa,” Rosie said. “Doesn’t she look like a movie star?”
Lisa stared excitedly at her new face in the mirror. She looked five years older!
Soon they heard footsteps. Rose hid the makeup, while Lisa scrubbed her face with soap and water. Little Sonia looked on and giggled. For a moment, the sorrow of parting from Professor Isseles seemed far away, and the three sisters joined hands and emerged to greet their mother.
Later, Lisa went to the window of their second-story apartment, peering into the cobblestone courtyard.
“Do you see him?” Malka yelled from the kitchen.
“No, Mama, not yet.”
Lisa’s father, Abraham Jura, was a proud man who had always called himself “the best tailor in all Vienna.” But now that the Nazi Party forbade non-Jews from using Jewish tailors, he had fewer customers. Sometimes, after she had gone to bed, Lisa heard her parents arguing about money. She noticed that the stress was slowly pushing Papa away. Gone were the early-evening dinners and the bear hugs when Papa came home from work.
It was Friday, at sunset. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, was beginning, with or without her father. Malka lit two white candles in silver holders, then four more—one for each of her three daughters and one for her own mother, Briendla, in Poland. A warm yellow light filled the room.
Lisa’s mother had a tradition of feeding poor neighbors on the night of the Sabbath. People usually lined up in the hallway an hour before sunset. But this evening, Malka went into the hallway and said sadly, “I am afraid we have nothing to share tonight.”
After dinner, Malka sat under the window in a large mahogany rocking chair. She rocked slowly back and forth, reciting her prayers, eyes focused on the street below.
A few nights later, Lisa and Sonia awoke to the sound of distant shouting.
They ran to the living room window and saw the sky red with the flames of burning buildings. Above the shouting came the piercing sound of shattering glass. Nazi soldiers in brown shirts were running down the block.
- On Sale
- Jan 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers