Book Review: The Children of Willesden Lane, by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, adapted by Emil Sher

The biography of Lisa Jura, Jewish a child prodigy as a pianist who lived a comfortable life in Vienna until the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.

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The moving story of Lisa Jura was co-written by her daughter Mona Golabek and American poet and screenwriter, Lee Cohen, who did much of the research in London and Vienna. This edition has been skilfully adapted for young readers by Emil Sher. Golabek, who is a concert pianist, was inspired to write her mother’s story when she began preparing for a performance of music her mother had loved.

Lisa Jura was Jewish, a child prodigy as a pianist who lived a comfortable life in Vienna until the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. The lives of Jews across Germany and Austria were increasingly restricted by anti-Semitic laws and Lisa’s piano teacher was forbidden to teach Jewish students. The events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes were vandalised, convinced Lisa’s parents they had to get their children to safety. The only way was on the Kindertransport, the children’s train, by which children were sent to England. Lisa was chosen to go first in December 1939 and her mother tells her to never stop playing just before she boarded the train in Vienna. It was September of the following year when her sister Sonia made it to England on the very last Kindertransport.

The book describes what life was like for Lisa and other Jewish children, living in a crowded hostel in Willesden Lane run by Mrs Cohen. Lisa finds work in a clothing factory but her music remains the mainstay of her life. She plays at the hostel and continues even during the London Blitz when the piano is moved to the cellar for safety. Through her own hard work and support from everyone around her, Lisa wins a scholarship to study piano at the Royal Academy of Music.

Lisa was still at Willesden Lane when the war ended. While there had been rumours of concentration camps towards the end of WWII, no one had imagined the horrors that were revealed at Auschwitz, Belsen or Treblinka at war’s end. She searched desperately for family members on the lists of survivors and displaced persons posted by Red Cross and Jewish charities. Lisa finally learned her sister Rosie and husband Leo were safe and the reunion of the 3 sisters was made even more emotional as Lisa and Sonia met their 4 year old niece, Esther.

Lisa Jura went on to make her professional debut at Wigmore Hall in London. She invited the Polish soldier she had first met when she was playing piano in a hotel lounge and, despite the fact he spoke very little English and Lisa couldn’t speak either of his languages, Polish and French, they married and immigrated to America.

This young peoples’ edition would be a good introduction for teenagers wanting to know more about WWII as it is written from a teenager’s perspective. While we are all too familiar with children travelling alone over vast distances to escape war and persecution, sadly the spirit of the Kindertransport and the protection and care provided in hostels such as Willesden Lane are no longer valued by those in power despite the overwhelming support for refugees in the wider community.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  8

Released by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: September 2017
RRP: $16.99

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