The Children of Willesden Lane

A True Story of Hope and Survival During World War II (Young Readers Edition)


By Mona Golabek

Adapted by Emil Sher

By Lee Cohen

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A young readers’ edition of an important and inspiring true story of hope and survival during World War II.

Fourteen-year-old Lisa Jura was a musical prodigy who hoped to become a concert pianist. But when Hitler’s armies advanced on pre-war Vienna, Lisa’s parents were forced to make a difficult decision. Able to secure passage for only one of their three daughters through the Kindertransport, they chose to send gifted Lisa to London for safety.

As she yearned to be reunited with her family while she lived in a home for refugee children on Willesden Lane, Lisa’s music became a beacon of hope. A memoir of courage and the power of music to uplift the human spirit, this compelling tribute to one special young woman and the lives she touched will both educate and inspire young readers.


Chapter 1

AS SHE HAD DONE EVERY SUNDAY since her tenth birthday, fourteen-year-old Lisa Jura boarded the lumbering streetcar in the heart of the Jewish section of Vienna and crossed the city, heading for Professor Isseles's studio.

She loved the ride.

To go across Vienna was to enter another century—the era of grand palaces and stately ballrooms. As the streetcar passed Symphony Hall, Lisa closed her eyes, just as she had many times before, and imagined herself sitting perfectly still in front of the grand piano on the stage of the great auditorium. She could hear the opening of Grieg's heroic piano concerto. She straightened her back into the elegant posture her mother had taught her, and when the tension was almost unbearable, she took a breath and began to play.

When she finally opened her eyes, the car was passing the Ringstrasse, the majestic tree-lined boulevard where the Grand Court Opera House stood. This was the Vienna of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, and Strauss, the greatest composers of all time. Lisa's mother had filled her head with their stories, and she had made a secret vow to live up to their legacy.

In a booming voice, the driver called out her stop. But today his words were strange and different: "Meistersinger-Strasse." Lisa's heart skipped a beat. Why hadn't the driver said "Mahler-Strasse"?

As she climbed down into the great plaza, she saw all the street signs had been changed; the Nazis did not approve of such a grand avenue being named after a Jew. She felt her fury grow but forced herself to think about the lesson ahead, knowing that once she was at the piano, the world outside would disappear.

When Lisa reached her destination, she stopped short. A German soldier, tall and emotionless, stood in the doorway of the professor's old stone building.

She had been coming to the professor's studio for nearly four years, but this was the first time anyone had been standing guard.

He asked coldly, "What business do you have here?"

"I have a piano lesson," she replied, trying not to be frightened by the black rifle he held against his gray uniform. "The professor will be waiting."

The soldier looked up to the second-floor window. A figure stared down, then motioned that it was all right for the girl to come up. The soldier grudgingly allowed Lisa to pass.

"Come in, Miss Jura," Professor Isseles said, greeting Lisa with his customary warm handshake. She breathed in the aroma of the white-haired professor's pipe tobacco. For the next hour, she could turn away from all else and be a part of the music she loved.

As usual, there was little small talk. Lisa put the score of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the music stand, sat on the worn piano bench, and began to play. The professor sat forward in his chair and followed her progress with his copy of the score.

For most of the hour Lisa played uninterrupted, as the old man sat in silence. She hoped to catch him smiling. After all, she had learned the complicated first movement in only a week and had often heard him say that she was his best student.

Finally, he put down his music and just listened. She looked over and saw a distressed expression on his face. Was she playing that badly?

At the end of the piece, the professor made no comment. He looked at her for a long moment, then finally spoke, looking uncomfortable and ashamed: "I am sorry, Miss Jura. But I am required to tell you that I cannot continue to teach you."

Lisa was stunned and unable to move.

"There is a new ordinance," he said slowly. "It is now a crime to teach a Jewish child."

Lisa felt tears rising.

"I am not a brave man," he said softly. "I am so sorry."

Through her tears, she watched the professor pick up a thin gold chain that lay on top of the piano. It held a tiny charm in the shape of a piano.

"You have a remarkable gift, Lisa, never forget that," he said softly, fastening the gold chain around her neck. "Perhaps this will help you to remember the music we shared here."

Lisa stared through her tears at her stoop-shouldered teacher. She was afraid she might never see him again. Gathering her composure, she thanked the professor and collected her things, then turned and fled.

The cold November wind sent a deep shiver through Lisa's slender body as she pulled her coat tight around her and stepped onto the streetcar. She looked back and saw Professor Isseles wave sadly before disappearing from his window.

Why were Germans telling Austrians what they could or couldn't do? It wasn't fair, and why were the Austrians letting them?

The ride was endless, its magic gone. She couldn't wait to get back to Franzensbrückenstrasse, where everyone in the old neighborhood knew her—the little girl who played the piano. The neighbors knew she had a gift. They could hear her music in the butcher's shop, they could hear it in the bakery—the music drifted everywhere. The street itself seemed to smile when the little girl played. People in the neighborhood started calling her by that special word: a prodigy.

Music had become Lisa's whole world: an escape from the dark streets, the run-down flats, shops, and markets that were home to Vienna's working-class Jews. And now, the most important escape of all, from the Nazis.

As she neared 13 Franzensbrückenstrasse, Lisa's steps were uncharacteristically slow. She arrived in her living room and dropped her music on the bench with a gesture that alarmed her mother.

"What is it, Liseleh, what's wrong?" Malka took her daughter in her arms and stroked her hair. Lisa cried desperately. Malka guessed what must have happened. "Is it Professor Isseles?"

Lisa nodded.

"Don't worry, I taught you before. I will teach you again." Lisa tried to smile at her mother's offer, but they both knew that Lisa had long ago surpassed her mother's ability.

Malka went to the cupboard, pulled out the complete preludes by Chopin, and sat at the piano.

"I'll play the right hand, you play the left," Malka insisted.

"I can't."

"Play what is in your heart."

Lisa sat beside her, playing the four-four rhythm of the marching, repeating chords. When she'd mastered the left hand, she took over from her mother, who watched proudly.

When they finished, Lisa went to her room and lay down, crying as silently as possible into the pillow.

A few minutes later she felt a warm hand on her shoulder, stroking her gently. It was her older sister, Rosie. "Don't cry, Lisa," she urged.

Lisa finally rolled over and looked up at the smartly dressed twenty-year-old. She was always happy when her older sister made time for her, since Rosie had been spending most of her time these days with her fiancé, Leo.

"Let me show you something I just learned, come on," Rosie insisted, taking Lisa by the hand.

Lisa stumbled into the bathroom behind her sister and glimpsed her tearstained face in the mirror. Rosie emptied out the contents of a cloth bag and spread the powders and paints on the bathroom dresser.

"I'll show you a new way to do your lips—you'll look just like Marlene Dietrich."

As she had so many times before, Rosie carefully applied lipstick and eye makeup to Lisa's face.

Without warning, their twelve-year-old sister, Sonia, burst through the door.

"What are you two doing in here?"

"Look at Lisa, doesn't she look like a movie star?"

Lisa stared excitedly at her new face in the mirror. She looked five years older! The sound of footsteps approaching stopped them in their tracks.

"Quick! Mama's coming!"

Lisa scrubbed her face with soap and water and Rosie scrambled to hide the cosmetics, as little Sonia looked on and giggled. Rosie put a protective arm around Lisa, and for a moment the sorrow of Professor Isseles seemed far away. The three sisters joined hands and emerged to greet their mother.

Chapter 2

LISA!" MALKA YELLED FROM THE KITCHEN. "Look out the window for your father."

Lisa went to the window of their second-story apartment, peering into the cobblestone courtyard.

"Do you see him?"

"No, Mama, not yet."

Lisa knew what was making her father late: It was that "gambling" thing her mother got so angry about. He would stay out playing cards with some of the neighborhood men in the storeroom of Mr. Rothbard's butcher shop. Lisa didn't understand a thing about cards, but she knew they made her mother very upset.

Abraham Jura had always called himself "the best tailor in all Vienna." Her father was a proud, elegant man who wore starched white shirts with tall collars. His customers had been Jews and gentiles alike. But now Abraham had few sewing jobs, and his longtime customers were turning up with less frequency. Gentiles had been forbidden to use Jewish tailors. A sign on his shop read JUDISCHES GESCHÄFT: "Jewish Business."

Sometimes, after she was in bed, Lisa heard raised voices coming from her parents' bedroom. The arguments were about money; that much she could figure out, and it seemed her father was angry at almost everyone these days. Gone were the early-evening dinners and the bear hugs when Papa came home from work to greet his family.

Abraham or no Abraham, Malka lit the Shabbat candles. It was Friday sunset and the Sabbath was beginning. She lit two white tapers in the silver holders that had been her own mother's and turned to her youngest daughter. "Sonia, why don't you tell us what they mean?"

"One candle is for the Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and rested on the seventh day," Sonia replied proudly.

"And the second candle, Lisa?"

"We light the second because we observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy."

Malka lit four more candles, one for each of her three daughters and one for her mother, Briendla, in Poland. A warm yellow light filled the room.

Lisa's mother had a tradition of feeding the poor on the night of the Sabbath, and people would line up in the hallway an hour before sunset.

This evening, Malka went into the hallway and said sadly, "I am afraid we have nothing to share tonight."

Lisa was stunned. She watched the hungry people shuffle away and saw the sorrow in her mother's eyes.

The girls joined their mother inside and began the meal without their father. When they finished, they watched Malka pull the large mahogany rocking chair to the window. She rocked slowly back and forth, reciting her prayers, eyes focused on the street below.

Lisa and Sonia awoke to loud noises—ominous noises of distant shouting.

Throwing on their robes, they ran to the living room window and saw the sky was red with the flames of burning buildings. Above the shouting came the piercing sound of shattering glass. Brown-shirted soldiers—Nazi storm troopers—were running down the block like a band of outlaws, throwing rocks and bricks through windows.

Dozens of neighbors ran out onto the street. Lisa saw Mr. Mendelsohn, the druggist, racing out of his building, and watched in horror as two elite soldiers—SS men—picked him up off the ground, flinging him into the plate-glass window of the pharmacy. She heard his agonized screams, jerked Sonia away from the window, and pulled her little sister back into the bedroom they shared.

"Get under the bed and stay there!" Lisa yelled. She ran into the hallway to search for her mother. Rosie had gone to Leo's.

"Lisa!" She heard the cry on the stairwell and ran down to find her mother holding her father's head in her lap. His face was covered with blood; his clothes were torn.

"It's only a small cut, Lisa, don't worry," her father said when he saw her terrified expression.

She took one elbow and her mother took the other, and they walked him slowly upstairs. Malka ignored the blood that stained the sheets and cleaned Abraham's cuts with a warm towel as he lay on the cherrywood bed she prized above all other possessions. Lisa gently picked the shards of glass out of the folds of his clothing.

"I was leaving Rothbard's when I saw a mob. They took turns smashing the windows, the biggest ones first, like it was fun for them. Then they wrote nasty words in paint. They said JUDEN! JUDEN SCHWEIN! Kill the Jews. Then one of them threw a bottle with gasoline inside a building."

Lisa was riveted by her father's terrifying words.

"I saw them drag people out of their homes. They took their things and burned them. Children that came into the streets were thrown on the ground. When I was running past the synagogue, they were taking out the ark and throwing the scrolls and the Torah in the street and setting them on fire!"

He paused to take a breath. "And there were no sirens. They wanted everything to burn." It was the night that came to be known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass.

More screams came from the window. They ran over and saw flames shooting out of the house on the corner, and the neighbors were forming a bucket brigade.

"Malka, I need my shoes!"

She said nothing but walked into the bedroom and brought her husband his heavy boots. He laced them up and ran down the stairs to help.

The frightened family stared out the window. They watched the bonfires grow larger as more and more books and possessions were added to the fires.

Suddenly, several storm troopers grabbed the men from the bucket brigade and dragged them into the street. Lisa watched in horror as her father was forced to get down on his knees and scrub the dirty pavement. The storm troopers yelled, "Schwein, Juden Schwein!" and kicked them when they didn't move fast enough.

Malka could no longer bear the shame. She took her two girls by the hand and led them to the bedroom, where they waited in silence for the terrible night to end.

Chapter 3

THERE WERE CURFEWS NOW. JEWS WERE not allowed on the streets at night or in movie theaters, concert halls, or most other public places.

Nazi cruelties had continued. Soldiers kept up their attacks on stores and homes, and beatings in the street became a common sight. Storm troopers broke into homes and arrested many of the men. It was whispered that the men were being taken away to prison camps.

Abraham's tailor shop on the first floor was now closed by government order.

Twelve-year-old Sonia could not understand why all of this was happening. She still went to school, but the Jewish children had been separated from the gentiles. She was not allowed to talk to any of her friends who weren't Jewish. The day her best friend stopped speaking to her, Sonia came home crying.

"Why, Mama, why?" she sobbed.

"Do you remember the Purim story about Queen Esther and Haman?" Malka asked, holding Sonia.

The girl nodded.

"Haman was the evil adviser to King Ahasuerus very long ago and wanted to kill all the Jews. But the king fell in love with Esther, who was a Jew herself and very beautiful, so he married her and made her the queen. Esther then used her royal power to save all the Jews."

"I remember," Sonia said.

"So now," Malka continued, "there is an evil man who is just like Haman; his name is Adolf Hitler. He is as evil as Haman, but he can't hurt us if we are brave and act wisely. We must have faith."

Malka had begged her husband not to go out, but he'd refused to listen. He had gathered his coat and left hurriedly. He had gone out into the streets, pitch-black since the smashing of the streetlights.

It was late when he returned.

Lisa strained to hear their conversation.

"We must do something immediately. The chance may not come again."

Lisa crept out of bed and stood in the hallway. She heard the words Holland and England.

"They are not letting Jews out of Vienna," her father continued. "But they are allowing some trains to take Jewish children. Hundreds have already gone. My cousins Dora and Sid live in London. This could be our only chance."

"How could we do it even if we wanted?"

"Mr. Rothbard said that his wife refuses under any condition to send their son on the train. He will give the son's place to us."

Malka drew in her breath with surprise and anguish.

"So you are asking me to send my precious daughters away?"

"Malka, he has only one place, for only one child right now. We must send Lisa or Sonia. Rosie is over eighteen, she isn't eligible."

Abraham's voice was wretchedly unhappy.

"As soon as we are able, we will find a way to send the others."

"It can't be the time for this. It can't be," Malka whispered in disbelief.

Everyone in Vienna had been talking about the Kindertransport—"the Children's Train." Far away in England, British citizens, Jews and Christians alike, sensing terrible tragedy, had pressured their government to bring thousands of Jewish children to safety in England—to be placed in homes, farms, hostels. Every Jewish family in Vienna was desperate to get a seat on one of those trains, and now Papa had managed to get one ticket!

Lisa heard footsteps as her mother emerged from the kitchen. Malka smiled sadly at her daughter. "Go to bed now, my darling. Go to bed."

She kissed her mother's cheek and walked back to her bedroom, where Sonia was sleeping peacefully next to her rag dolls. Lisa stared at her sister and wondered what the decision would be.

The next morning Lisa was reading at the kitchen table when her parents entered the room.

"We have made a decision," her mother said. "We are sending you to England. We would like to send all of you, but we are forced to choose only one. You are strong, Liseleh, and you have your music to guide you.… We will send you first. As soon as we can find enough money, we will send your sisters."

Then Malka began to cry.

Lisa was silent, and although she felt like crying herself, she wouldn't give in to her tears.

"There is an organization called the Bloomsbury House, which has arranged for Jewish children to come to England. It's safer there," said her father.

"Can't we go together? Can't we wait and go together?"

Abraham looked tenderly at his daughter. "Sonia will come next, and then Rosie and Leo and your mother and I will join you. Your cousins will take care of you until we get there."

"Who are these cousins?" Lisa asked.

"My aunt's cousins. I have never met them, but I am told one is also a tailor. A tailor in London."

Lisa forced herself to conjure up the image of a handsome man in an elegant suit and hat. "Then I will work for him and send you the money, you'll see."

The Kindertransport was set to leave the week after Hanukkah. The family lit the menorah each night and said their prayers. No friends came by since Jews were no longer allowed on the streets without a special pass.

Lisa's bag had been packed for several days. She would take only one small suitcase—enough to hold a change of clothes and her good Shabbat dress.

Then, one night, Abraham got the call: Lisa's train would be leaving the following morning.

She awoke before anyone else and walked through the house, determined to remember everything she loved. She stopped at the piano and brushed her fingers in the air above the keys. The copy of "Clair de Lune" was on the piano. Guiltily she rolled it up and put it in her pocket. It was a silly luxury, she thought, since she had so little space, but she couldn't help herself.

Her mother came in from the hall and put on her heavy coat.

"It's time to go."

The Westbahnhof station was overflowing with people; Lisa had never seen it so crowded. Hundreds of desperate families rubbed shoulder to shoulder in panic and confusion, and pushed belongings of all shapes and sizes toward the waiting train. At the door to each car, Nazi soldiers in long brown coats shouted into bullhorns as they inspected suitcases and documents.

When the crowd became too dense, the Jura family stopped for their final good-byes. It had been decided that Rosie, Sonia, and Abraham would say good-bye first, then Lisa's mother would walk her to the train.

Abraham had been carrying the small suitcase for his daughter. When he stopped and handed it to her, Lisa could only clutch the handle and stand frozen. She felt that if anyone moved from her side, she would fall to pieces like a broken china figurine.

Abraham put his arm around Rosie, easing her toward Lisa, and the two sisters embraced.

"Don't forget to take the window seat so we can see you," her beautiful older sister shouted above the noise. "We'll all be together again soon. Be brave for us."

Next, Abraham gently pushed his youngest daughter forward. Lisa kissed her, reached into her pocket, and placed Professor Isseles's tiny gold charm around Sonia's neck.


  • "A tale of one young woman's courage ... hopeful, personal, and true."— Los Angeles Times
  • "A deeply moving and heartfelt tale ... brings tears to the reader's eyes ... a testament to maternal love."—Washington Post Book World

On Sale
Mar 28, 2017
Page Count
224 pages

Mona Golabek

About the Author

Mona Golabek is a Grammy-nominated recording artist, internationally celebrated concert pianist, star of the one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane, and author of The Children of Willesden Lane. She has traveled the globe sharing her mother’s inspirational message. This story will soon be a major motion picture.

Lee Cohen is a journalist, screenwriter, and poet.
Emil Sher is an author and playwright living in Toronto.
Sonia Possentini is a fine artist and illustrator living in Modena, Italy.

Learn more about this author