A Youth Lead Community Conversation: Willesden Lane in Memphis

Over 2,200 Memphis students poured into the Orpheum Theater on Tuesday to see Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, a one-woman show that uses music to tell the story of Lisa Jura, a Jewish refugee during the Holocaust. Mona, who also authored the book, The Children of Willesden Lane, is Lisa Jura’s daughter. Mrs. Golabek began the show by addressing the students:

This is a story of, ‘what do you hold onto in the darkest of times?’ And in my mother’s case, it was her music.

Prior to the performance, Facing History and Ourselves offered two professional development workshops for educators, class sets of the book, and tickets to the show. With support from the Allstate Foundation, teachers and students across the city were able to study a challenging history and develop new strategies to approaching difference and hardship today.

Following the second of two performances, Facing History staff facilitated a conversation between students in the audience and Mona. Questions from a mix of middle and high school students reflected a variety of inquiries, ranging from historical to anecdotal. “How did your mother feel about you sharing her story? Did she ever move back to Vienna?” asked one student. A younger student asked, “Did any of the Germans ever apologize to your mom or any Jewish people for what they did?”

Middle school students from Memphis Business Academy, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, and Snowden joined a more intimate talk back with Mona that afternoon. Themes of perseverance, identity, civic duty, and membership emerged. As Mona signed their books, students shared what they took away from the experience. One student began with, “You really made me realize how the choices we make now really do matter. The choices your mom had to make affect the choices you’ve made. Just like the choices we’re making today will affect tomorrow, and 10 years from now- and even our kids one day.” The student next to her agreed, adding, “I think that’s why it’s good that you tell this story to spread awareness about refugees and the challenges that Muslim people and other immigrants are facing today.”

One young man shed light on a more personal discovery:

Well, I’m Jewish too, and until now I had never really been able to grasp the journey of the Jewish people and how they survived. It’s amazing that you were able to take a time that was very sad, but you make it a story of hope.

Through music and personal narrative, Mona Golabek brought a story that struck a chord with Facing History teachers and students; through playing back a difficult moment in history, she illuminated tensions facing our democracy today. What resonated with students was not the tragedy, but the triumph. Mona embodied her grandmother’s advice given to her mother as she boarded the Kindertransport, “Hold onto to your music.” Find what gives you strength in the darkest of times and never give up. In true Upstander fashion, The Pianist of Willesden Lane transformed a sad song into an instrument of hope.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane performances are presented by Facing History and Ourselves and The Allstate Foundation in partnership with The Hold On To Your Music Foundation at The Orpheum Theatre.

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