The Children of Willesden Lane

Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival


By Mona Golabek

By Lee Cohen

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Based on the true story of her mother, Mona Golabek describes the inspirational story of Lisa Jura’s escape from Nazi-controlled Austria to England on the famed Kindertransport.

Jewish musical prodigy Lisa Jura has a wonderful life in Vienna. But when the Nazis start closing in on the city, life changes irreversibly. Although he has three daughters, Lisa’s father is only able to secure one berth on the Kindertransport. The family decides to send Lisa to London so that she may pursue her dreams of a career as a concert pianist. Separated from her beloved family, Lisa bravely endures the trip and a disastrous posting outside London before finding her way to the Willesden Lane Orphanage.

It is in this orphanage that Lisa’s story truly comes to life. Her music inspires the other orphanage children, and they, in turn, cheer her on in her efforts to make good on her promise to her family to realize her musical potential. Through hard work and sheer pluck, Lisa wins a scholarship to study piano at the Royal Academy. As she supports herself and studies, she makes a new life for herself and dreams of reconnecting with the family she was forced to leave behind. The resulting tale delivers a message of the power of music to uplift the human spirit and to grant the individual soul endurance, patience, and peace.


Copyright © 2002 by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc.,

Hachette Book Group USA

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

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First eBook Edition : July 2007

The Hachette Book Group Publishing name and logo is a trademark of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

ISBN: 978-0-446-50666-3

Book design by Giorgetta Bell McRee

To my beloved mother, LisaThe music of your soul is eternal


I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many individuals who participated in the fifteen-year journey to bring my mother's story to life.

For her extraordinary insight and prose, enormous thanks are owed to Christine Burrill, without whom this book would not have been possible.

A profound thank you to Irene Webb and John Karas, for bringing the project to Warner Books; to Jamie Raab, for believing in the power of my mother's life story; to Caryn Karmatz Rudy for being our guiding light; and to Harvey-Jane Kowal and Molly Chehak for their invaluable support.

Thanks to Lee Cohen for his great caring and devotion to the project, and to those individuals who gave him support, guidance, and wisdom—Lois Sarkisian, Alex Cohen, Brien Lopez, Susan Grode, Regina Seidman Miller, Belinda Casas-Wells, Deborah Oppenheimer, Al Landolph and Pam Somers, Tara Cook, Mark and Ann Goldblatt, Fred and Cheryl Cook. In memory of Sue Cohen.

Thanks to Dennis and Gina Schwartz, Martin Lewis, Hans Cohen, Bertha Leverton, David Jedwab, Honey Chester, Annette Saville, for their time, generosity, and memories.

Thanks also to Richard Burkhart, for his daily commitment every step of the way; Chuck Hurewitz, for his invaluable advice; Marc Whitmore, for his thoughtful assistance; and to Jesse Silver, Jackie Maduff, and Marc Kaye, for their insightful contributions and loving support through the long process.

And finally:

The deepest thanks

To my best friend, my sister, Renée: We had the greatest parents.

To Michele: You were Lisa's angel.

To Sarah: Lisa loved you with all her heart.

To Jonathan and Rachel: Lisa is listening—and waiting to see where the music will lead you.

Author's Note

Several years ago, I was preparing for a concert that featured the Grieg piano concerto and found my thoughts turning to my beloved mother, Lisa. I remembered the last time I had played for her.

Although she had fought against it with everything she had, my mother had grown weak and fragile from illness. She yearned to sit at the grand piano in her living room and play, but she could no longer manage it. Instead, she watched and listened as I played.

As I began, I was a child again, her student, watching her at the piano, hearing her play those same heroic passages of the Grieg with a passion and intensity I knew would be difficult to match. My mother had lived an incredible journey and she had infused her music with everything she had experienced: her childhood with loving parents in Vienna before World War II; her escape to England aboard the legendary Kindertransport; her struggle to study her music while a war raged around her; and always, her endless fascination with that ramshackle building at 243 Willesden Lane, the hostel in the London suburbs where she lived as a young refugee separated from her family.

I watched my mother's eyes as I played for her, and remembered how I loved my piano lessons. They were more than piano lessons—they were lessons in life. They were filled with stories of the hostel and the people she knew there. Her stories were my folklore, filled with bits and pieces about a kind lady named Mrs. Cohen, a mysterious suitor named Aaron who whistled the melody of the Grieg as a signal to meet him, and members of a clandestine committee named Gina, Gunter, and Paul. Sitting at the piano, I would close my eyes and listen to her gentle voice, and see the world and the people she had grown up with and loved.

Most of the names you read on these pages are the real names of Lisa Jura's friends and family. Aaron's name has been changed, because this character was an amalgamation of several boys who were influential in my mother's life. Mr. Hardesty's character, too, represents several Bloomsbury House officials. The facts and conversations that follow reflect my mother's recollections, although I realize that some of her stories were clouded by time. In the places where there were gaps in her memory, my present-day research has filled them in. The spirit of the story is all hers.

When I finished playing for my mother that final time, she nodded her quiet approval and I moved to her bedside and sat there as she had sat at mine when I was a child. At the end, she was, I believe, at peace.

My mother was my greatest teacher, and my sister, Renée, and I became concert pianists because of her.

I know that Lisa Jura Golabek's spirit continues to live, not only through me, but through all those she touched. Her legacy has inspired my music and my life and continues to do so every single day. I pass along her story in hopes it may enrich the passion and music that lie in each of us.


LISA JURA took her appearance very seriously. She stood in front of the mirror for an eternity, arranging her dark red hair so that it peeked stylishly from under the wool hat she had just bought in the hand-me-down store. The hat needed the perfect tilt . . . just so. She had seen the models do it in the fashion magazines.

She was determined to look more sophisticated than her fourteen years. She was going to her piano lesson and there was nothing more important. Finally turning from the mirror, she smiled at the image of a saucy young girl.

After opening the front door quietly, so as not to disturb her family, she walked down the hallway of the crowded tenement and emerged from the solemn gray building, stepping onto the sidewalk of Franzensbrückestrasse in the heart of the Jewish section of the city.

As she had done every Sunday since her tenth birthday, Lisa boarded the lumbering streetcar and crossed Vienna, heading for Professor Isseles's studio.

She loved the ride.

The images rushed by her window—the glorious Ferris wheel of the Prater amusement park and the blue and serene Danube—eerily accompanied by the distant rhythm of an oompah band. To go across the city was to enter another century—the era of grand palaces and stately ballrooms. Street upon street of marble and granite, of pillar and pediment. The spire of St. Stephen's Cathedral danced by. Her father called it "Der Alte Steffe"—"Old Stevie." Lisa thought it a silly name; it was much more grand than that, rising to the heavens like a castle in a fairy tale.

As the streetcar descended the broad avenue and 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. A hush fell over the audience. The keys shimmered in front of her, ebony against ivory. She could hear the opening of Grieg's heroic piano concerto: the soft roll of the tympani building until the moment of her entrance. 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.

She could sense the excitement of the audience and feel their hearts beat in time with hers. The exhilaration of hearing the music inside her was so extreme that the bumps of the ride and the noise of the street no longer disturbed her.

When she finally opened her eyes, the car was passing the Ringstrasse, the majestic tree-lined boulevard where the Grand Court Opera House stood. She looked out the window in awe and waited for the driver to call her stop.

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. She could hear their music in the marble of the buildings and the stones of the streets. They were here. They were listening.

In a booming voice, the driver called out her stop. But today his words were strange and different. In place of the familiar "Mahler-Strasse" she was expecting, he called another name: "Meistersinger-Strasse." Lisa's heart stopped momentarily.

She climbed down into the great plaza. 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 tried to contain herself. Getting upset would only interfere with her music. She forced herself to think about the lesson ahead, knowing that once she was at the piano, the world outside would disappear.

Although it was early, the café-lined streets bustled with energy. The gentle sounds of the "Blue Danube" waltz, mixing with raucous Dixieland jazz, returned the smile to Lisa's face. The aroma of warm, fresh apfelstrudel, thick with sliced apples and cinnamon, made her long for a taste of her mother's recipe—surely the best in all of Vienna.

Inside the cafés, well-dressed young men and women sipped their coffee, deep in animated conversation. Lisa imagined them all to be composers, artists, and poets passionately defending their latest works. She yearned to join them, to wear fine clothes and speak of Beethoven and Mozart—to be a part of that intoxicating café society. One day, when she made her musical debut, these streets, these cafés, would be hers.

When Lisa reached her destination, she stopped short. A German soldier, tall and emotionless, stood in the doorway of the old stone building that housed Professor Isseles's music studio. The sun glinted harshly off the black rifle he held against his gray uniform.

She had been coming to the professor's studio for nearly four years, but this was the first time anyone had been standing guard. She shouldn't have been surprised, though; Nazi guards were becoming an increasingly menacing sight on the streets of Vienna.

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

"I have a piano lesson," she replied, trying not to be frightened by the soldier's commanding presence or by the firearm on his shoulder.

"The professor will be waiting," she continued in a loud, clear voice, the force of her words belying her true state of mind. 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. Lowering his weapon, the soldier moved away from the door and grudgingly allowed Lisa to pass.

"Come in, Miss Jura," Professor Isseles said, greeting Lisa with his customary warm handshake. The stoop-shouldered, white-haired gentleman ushered her in past a chipped bust of Beethoven and a sideboard covered with stacks of yellow sheet music. She breathed in the aroma of the professor's pipe tobacco. These sights and scents had become a friendly greeting—a signal that for the next hour, she could turn away from all else and be a part of the music she loved.

The professor's stately Blüthner piano stood in the middle of the studio. It was richly polished, with ornately carved legs and a scroll-patterned music stand. On the wall hung her teacher's prized possession—a photograph of Franz Liszt as an old man, surrounded by several students, including the professor's teacher. He boasted that his teachings were a direct line from the master himself, and there was a worn mark on the photograph where he had so often placed his finger.

As usual, there was little small talk. Lisa put the score of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C on the music stand and sat on the worn piano bench. She adjusted its height to fit her small stature.

"So, Miss Jura, was it difficult?" asked the professor.

"It was much too easy," she teased.

"Then I expect nothing less than perfection," he responded, smiling.

Lisa began to play the tender C-major opening theme. The professor sat forward in his chair and followed her progress with his copy of the score. When the simple theme erupted into cascades of descending arpeggios, she peered out of the corner of her eye to judge his reaction.

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.

But the professor continued listening with a stern concentration. When he had this expression, she imagined it was his sadness at not being able to play the piano anymore. Arthritis had stiffened his fingers, making it impossible to demonstrate the correct way of playing. What a cruel trick of fate to deny a pianist the ability to perform, she thought. She could not imagine a day when she would not be able to play.

To illustrate his lessons, Professor Isseles would play recordings for her on his gramophone. He was in awe of Horowitz's playing of Rachmaninoff, but it was the lyricism of Myra Hess performing Beethoven that he most appreciated.

"Listen to the tone of her legato," the professor would say with a sigh.

Lisa listened and listened and listened.

For most of the hour Lisa played uninterrupted, as the old man sat in silence, occasionally bringing his hand down to emphasize an accent in the music. 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. Lisa went on to her customary scales and waited anxiously for her assignment. The professor focused on scraping the bowl of his pipe into the ashtray.

"May I do the adagio for next week?" she asked nervously. She loved the second movement and yearned to show him her improving legato.

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. The professor walked to his window and opened the curtain. He stared at the people in the street. "There is a new ordinance," he said slowly. "It is now a crime to teach a Jewish child." He continued mumbling under his breath, then added in despair, "Can you imagine!"

Lisa felt tears rising.

"I am not a brave man," he said softly. "I am so sorry." He came over to the piano, lifted up her slender young hands, and held them in his grip. "You have a remarkable gift, Lisa, never forget that."

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.

"It is not much, but perhaps it will help you to remember the music we shared here," he said softly, fastening the gold chain around her neck with trembling fingers.

She stared through her tears at the stacks of music, the picture of Liszt on the wall, and tried to memorize every detail. She was afraid she might never see them 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 waited for the next streetcar. German SS, storm troopers, were everywhere she looked. Were they all staring at her? She threw her head back and walked defiantly toward the approaching car, climbing onto the landing and grabbing the frozen pole tightly with her woolen mittens. Staring back at the huge building, she memorized the pattern of its beveled glass windows, the size of its portico, and the gleam of the bronze door handle, shining from the polish of thousands of handclasps. The professor waved 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? There must be an answer—there must be someone to blame.

The faces on the streetcar were staring at her with pity. She quickly yanked the hat off her head and covered her face, realizing she had been crying since she'd left the studio. She wouldn't give these horrible people the satisfaction of watching her.

The ride was endless, its magic gone. She couldn't wait to get back to Franzensbrückestrasse, where everyone in the old neighborhood knew her—the little girl who played the piano. The neighbors had gossiped at first about her mother, Malka, when she had bought that expensive upright piano from Mr. Minsky's secondhand store. How could the Juras afford it? Such an extravagant purchase in these tense times.

But five years later, the neighbors had realized their shortsightedness. Malka's daughter was special. She had a gift. You could hear it in the butcher's shop, you could hear it in the bakery—the music drifted everywhere. The street itself seemed to smile when the little girl played. People started calling her by that special word: Lisa Jura was a prodigy.

Sometimes Lisa played so loudly that her banging octaves could be heard above the clatter of the trashcans and mixed into the teeming loudness of tenement clatter.

But when she played softly and sweetly, old couples would move to their windows and stop whatever they were doing. Schubert and Mozart would float down the stairs, in and out of apartments, and fill the neighborhood with grace.

The music transported the mind of this precocious teenager into fanciful imaginings. As she played the first bars of a Strauss waltz, she saw herself in a satin ball gown, her hand held high by some count or marquis, being led to the dance floor. The elegant crowd parted as she made her entrance.

From the time she was a little girl, Malka taught Lisa to surrender herself completely to the music by telling her stories and painting fantastic images. For Lisa the music became her whole world: an escape from the dark streets, the rundown 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 Franzensbrückestrasse, Lisa's steps were uncharacteristically slow. Her heels barely left the ground; her upright posture sagged. 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.

"Let's play something now. Let's begin the day all over again."

"I can't play now, Mama. I'm too upset."

"Oh, Lisa, have you forgotten all I've taught you? It's at times like this that your music is most important."

Malka went to the cupboard and pulled out the complete preludes by Chopin; after opening the book to the number four in E Minor, she 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, blending the plaintive melody of the upper register with the somber chords of the base. The melody reached its final question and found resolution in an exquisite pianissimo.

Outside, an old woman put down her heavy groceries, leaned against the building, and listened.

When she finished the Chopin, 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. "Come on. I'll show you something."

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.

"Crying won't help, Lisa. 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 all manner of powder 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 they had so many times before, Rosie carefully applied lipstick and eye makeup to Lisa's face.

"See? A little bit wider than the lip line."

Her sister should know, Lisa thought. She had been the runner-up in a Miss Vienna contest—two years earlier— when they had still allowed non-Aryan contestants. 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!"

In a well-rehearsed drill, 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.


LISA!" MALKA yelled from the kitchen. "Look out the window for your father."

Lisa rose reluctantly from the piano bench and went to the window of their second-story apartment, peering into the cobblestone courtyard.

"Do you see him?"

"No, Mama, not yet." The wind was blowing fiercely; the streetlights rattled. Winter was on its way. Before long, it would be Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, Lisa's favorite time of year.

"Is he there yet?"

"No, I said I didn't see him!"

"Where is he!" Malka began making a lot of noise with the pans in the kitchen. It was her way of letting off steam.

"Don't break anything, Mama!" Lisa said, laughing. She was answered with another crash. "All right, then, get your sisters and we'll start without him."

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 must be terrible since they made her mother so 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 and came from all over the city to have their suits custom-made. But now Abraham had few sewing jobs, his longtime customers were turning up with less frequency. Gentiles had been forbidden to use Jewish tailors. A sign on his shop read "Jüdisches Geschäft": "Jewish Business."

Sometimes, after she was in bed, there were 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.

She was upset by his wrinkled clothes and frayed cuffs. Fingering the loose buttons, she frowned. "Papa, I'm going to sew your buttons on for you. You must have forgotten how," she teased him playfully. "Who will come visit a tailor that has a loose button?"

Her father would look at her sadly and say nothing. At those times, when she felt her father changing before her eyes, she would escape to the piano and her fantasies.

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. A similar glow was appearing in parlors and dining rooms all across the neighborhood.

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. Some came in tattered clothing and unkempt hair, others came with neatly mended patches, temporarily down on their luck. The faces would change, but one remained the same—a tall old man with a straggly white beard, the girls' favorite, who told them a story every week.

This evening, rather than bringing a plate of hot kosher food, Malka came 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 old storyteller stayed behind, staring at the mezuzah hanging in the doorway.

After a long painful moment, he turned to Malka: "God will bless you for all of your past generosity."

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

Lisa and Sonia awoke to loud noises—not the usual raised voices that often accompanied her father's late night homecomings, but ominous noises of distant shouting.

Throwing on their robes, they rushed to her parents' bedroom. It was empty, so 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. It exploded in terrifying crescendos from up and down the streets. Storm troopers were running down the block like a band of outlaws—brown-shirted soldiers were throwing rocks and bricks through windows. They swung clubs recklessly in the air. She wondered if they were drunk. Did they let soldiers drink?

Even though it was late, 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 SS men picked him 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." Sonia looked up imploringly. "Get under the bed!" Lisa yelled, and ran into the hallway to search for her mother.

"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.

"Are you all right? Where is Sonia? Where is Rosie?"

"I sent Sonja to hide under the bed, Rosie said she was going to Leo's, remember? Let me help you with Papa."


On Sale
Jul 31, 2007
Page Count
288 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