Saving the Children of Europe from the Nazis

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, musical, The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

From 1938 to 1940, the German government permitted ten thousand children, mostly Jews, to leave Germany and German occupied countries to immigrate to homes, schools and hostels in England as part of the Kindertransport program. The children left their parents, many of whom fell victims to the Nazis and wound up murdered or imprisoned in concentration camps, and others did not see their family for seven more years. Kindertransport, that only lasted two years, before the Nazis shut it down, was a wonder of history. What was life like for these kids, none older than 17, all strangers in a strange land?

The Pianist of Willesden Lane, a musical adapted by Hershey Felder from the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport; a Memoir of Music, Love and Survival, by Lisa Golabek and Lee Cohen, is a moving story of one of those kids, a fourteen year old girl who survives it all by playing her piano – anywhere and everywhere. It opened last week at the 59E59 Theaters in New York.

The girl is played by concert pianist Mona Golabek, the real daughter of Lisa Jura, the spunky heroine of the story. She plays music by Beethoven, Chopin, Bach and others to help tell her story, and gets much assistance from director Hershey Felder. He placed her in the center of the stage and surrounded her with huge picture frames, within which are shown hundreds of photos and videos of Vienna, London and World War II fighting. It is a multi-media show that tells the story of the kindertransport children with power and emotion.

The centerpiece of the story is little Lisa, 14, sent to England by her parents, who chose her over her sisters because of her piano skills. In England, she is given an entirely new life at a hostel on Willesden Lane, in a suburb of London. There, with 29 other teenaged refugees, she lands a job in a factory as a seamstress, makes friends and even falls in love. Lisa leaves the factory when she wins a scholarship to a famous arts academy in London and works there for several years. She even entertains soldiers with her piano playing towards the end of the war six years later. Lisa survives the bombing of London and has her hostel blown up around her. She, and the other kids, and their benefactors, plunge on.

It is the story of a teenager growing up in another land with other customs and another history, and fitting right in. It is also the story of a teenager’s yearning to see her family and worry over what happened to them as World War II dragged on. At the same time, it is a tribute to the people of England, who took in all these kids and embraced them.

Golabek, not a professional actress by training, is a little awkward and wooden in telling the story in this one woman play, but that is more than made up for with her emotions. She also does a nice job of telling the story in conjunction with the images flashed on the wall behind her. The music, played beautifully, helps set the tone for the story. You get hooked on Lisa’s harrowing tale right away and wonder what would have happened to your own life if you were her.

At the end of the play, you find out what happened to Lisa and everybody else when the war ended (mostly good things) and that is satisfying. Goodness triumphed over evil. The children, in different ways, were as powerful a force to defeat Germany as the allied bombers.

Historians will love The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Through one little girl, the entire story of the Kindertransport is told. It is a fascinating chapter in the history of World War II and highlights not only the bravery and boldness of the Brits who put it together, and took in so many children to save them, but also the saga of the spirited kids themselves, who did not let the Holocaust or the greatest war the world has known destroy them.

These kids gave up their families and practically all of their possession, many traveling to Great Britain with just a small envelope. Each Jewish family could only send one child, under 17, with very little money for support. Each child had to have a sponsoring family or group to take them in when they arrived in England. They were given jobs, put into social clubs, educated and treated like any other English child. They survived and thrived. Many boys, upon turning 18, joined the British military and fought the Nazis. Many girls became nurses or school teachers. Most remained in England after the war or went to Israel. Some became politicians and won offices in Great Britain. Their legacy lives on with the Kindertranpsort Association, still thriving after nearly seventy years, with the kids and their descendants as members.

And, after all these years, the pianist of Willesden Lane plays on.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the 59E59 Theaters. Sets: Trevor Hay & Hershey Felder, Costumes: Jaclyn Maduff, Lighting: Christopher Rynne, Sound: Erik Carstensen, Projection Design: Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowitzdrzal. The play was directed by Harvey Felder. Runs through August 24.

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