Holocaust Survival Story Marks 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

Nov 9, 2018

In the aftermath of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue, many find it sobering to recall that this month is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

The “night of broken glass” was an organized, government-sanctioned Nazi pogrom against Jews in Germany. It took place in November 1938, less than a year before the start of World War II, and is regarded as the beginning of the Holocaust.

Mona Golabek performs "The Children of Willesden Lane" at 7 p.m. Mon., Nov. 12, at the Byham Theater, Downtown, and 7:30 p.m. Thu., Nov. 15, in Kresge Theatre on the Carnegie Mellon University Campus. Both shows are free.

To mark the anniversary, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and Classrooms Without Borders will present “The Children of Willesden Lane,” an internationally touring one-woman show about a Jewish girl’s experience during that era. Concert pianist Mona Golabek uses storytelling and classical music to recall her late mother, Lisa Jura, a musical prodigy in Vienna who was shipped to England as part of the famous Kindertransport to save Jewish children from Nazis.

Jura was relocated in March 1938 – just months before Kristallnacht. But her story, as told by Golabek, resonates with themes of survival that still echo in today’s world of political division and global refugee crises.

“It's a story of a Jewish teenager in World War II,” said Golabek. “But it's the story of every child today.”

Golabek – a Grammy-nominated performer – and co-author Lee Cohen first told Jura’s story in their book “The Children of Willesden Lane.” In 2012, the stage adaptation debuted, with Golabek assuming the role of her mother and other key characters and punctuating the show with works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin and more. She’s performed it in major cities across the U.S. and also in London – the town where her mother grew up in an orphanage on the titular street.

The music is really the point, said Golabek, whose first piano lessons were taught by her mother. The pieces in “Willesden Lane” are meant to evoke specific scenes.

“When I perform the 'Clair de Lune' by Debussy, or the 'Moonlight Sonata' of Beethoven, or the Grieg piano concerto that she dreamed of making her debut in, I am able to tell the story through the music,” said Golabek. “And, as I tried to share with the audiences, you can actually feel Lisa’s stories.

"You can feel what she's feeling when she played that music when she was on the train escaping from the Nazis and she made her way into Holland and she saw the moonlight coming through the turning of the windmills," she says. "It reminded her of the 'Claire de Lune' that she left behind in Vienna. When you hear the cadenza of the Grieg piano concerto, the pounding that I do at the piano, you understand better the storyline of when she went down into the basement and pounded out that Grieg in defiance of the blitz.”

The performance also includes projected still and video images evoking the bygone era.

In Pittsburgh, there are two shows, both offering free admission: Monday at Downtown’s Byham Theater, and Thursday on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

In Pittsburgh as elsewhere, the production is being accompanied by the distribution of copies of the book to students in local schools. Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Classrooms Without Borders, which focuses on education about the Holocaust and Israel, facilitated the reading and discussion of the book by some 14,000 students in 38 area schools, said Zipora Gur, the group’s founder and executive director.

Golabek lives in Los Angeles. She said the Tree of Life synagogue shootings here makes her visit especially meaningful.

“I consider it a particular honor and privilege to come and to share this story and maybe provide, you know, something, some kind of healing, some kind of inspiration, to heal some of the hearts in Pittsburgh and across the nation."