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A War Story Set to Music

June 18, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What could be new about the plight of Europe's Jewish children at the start of World War II? The horrors they endured have been cataloged, explained, assessed, discussed. It is an episode one might believe has been wrung dry of any possible fresh illumination. But, as with any great saga of the human spirit, new insights are as numerous as the artists willing to explore them.

Mona Golabek, author and concert pianist, took the stage at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on a recent evening to discuss her new book, "The Children of Willesden Lane" (Time Warner). A willowy blond in a long black slip-like dress, she moved gracefully from reading passages in the book to playing passages of the music she mentions in it.

The story is hopeful, personal. And true.

It is a memoir of her mother, Lisa, starting when Lisa is a little girl with two sisters in prewar Vienna. They are the daughters of a tailor and a housewife who plays piano and loves classical music.

Lisa soon reveals herself to be a piano prodigy, and her mother teaches her all she knows. Not just the music, but tales of how the composers looked and lived, where and for whom they played. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss all seemed like Lisa's friends by the time she started formal lessons with a fine instructor. Those ended when he was forced to stop teaching her because she was Jewish.

Soon after, her father and all other Jews were prohibited from working. Soldiers beat people in the streets, broke windows, battered and pillaged the Jewish neighborhood. It was terrible for children to watch, but as long as the sisters had each other and their mother's soothing care, it all seemed bearable.

One day the parents announced that they'd secured a single space on the kindertransport--a train that took endangered children from Germany and Austria to the safety of London. The oldest daughter had just turned 18 and was ineligible. The youngest was too small, the parents thought, to live life on her own. Lisa, the pianist, was 14, and had her music to sustain her. She would hopefully get to England and find a sponsor so her little sister could escape.

Before she put Lisa on the train, her mother made her promise: "Hold on to your music; it will help you through--let it be your best friend." She pressed a photo of herself into Lisa's palm, and the voyage began.

The book chronicles Lisa's journey to the hostel for displaced children at 243 Willesden Lane--and the lives of those traumatized youngsters who turned the house into a haven. It was a place where all arrived speaking German and all learned English--fast. A place where all desperately missed their parents and siblings and had no way to know if they were still alive. Lisa and the other "older" children left every morning to work in factories, shops and homes--their earnings were necessary to keep food on the table and coal in the bin.

It was also a place of friendship, romance and fun. And it had an ancient upright piano.

Lisa kept her promise to her mother, whose voice echoed constantly in her head. She practiced every day after work, no matter how tired. She had no teacher to help her progress in technique--but the other kids tried to listen to her music thoughtfully and make constructive comments. They chipped in to buy her a metronome, having decided her playing lacked consistent timing. They helped her win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music--a miracle for someone with no parents, money or musical mentor. Even more amazing, Lisa managed to recruit a sponsor for her younger sister, who made it out of Vienna on the last kindertransport train.

Lisa never saw her parents again. Both were killed. Her older sister eventually escaped, and the three siblings migrated to Southern California. Lisa married and had two daughters, Mona (the author) and Renee. They are pianists like their mother and like the grandmother they never met. Renee's four children are musicians. And so the legacy continues, not just for them but for all who lived at 243 Willesden Lane.

Martin Lewis, 80, of La Crescenta, was in the audience. He lived with Lisa in the hostel and remembers their life well. "The house became home. We had no one in the world except each other. We became family, lifelong friends. Our parents had put us on a train, and 90% of us never saw them or our siblings again." Lewis, a widower, says he doesn't need to read the book, "because I lived it." But he has gone to watch Lisa's daughters play piano "many times at the Hollywood Bowl, once under the direction of Zubin Mehta." And now he has seen one of them immortalize his dear friend Lisa, who died in 1998, in the new book, which was written with Lee Cohen.

Eddie Nussbaum, 79, another kindertransport child, also showed up at the event. After the war he married, became a mechanical engineer and settled in Brentwood. The strength of their parents' love--even in absentia--was what powered many Willesden children to survive and succeed, he says.

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