Mona Golabek in
The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder
Main Season · Thrust Stage
October 25, 2013–January 5, 2014
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of Lisa Jura, a young Jewish musician whose dreams are interrupted by the Nazi regime. In this poignant show, virtuoso Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beautiful piano music as she shares her mother’s riveting story of survival. Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, Pianist is infused with hope and invokes the life-affirming power of music.
Hershey Felder · Director / Adaptor
Trevor Hay · Associate Director / Scenic Co-Design
Jaclyn Maduff · Costume Design
Christopher Rynne · Lighting Design
Erik Carstensen · Sound Design / Production Manager
Andrew Wilder · Projection Design
Greg Sowizdrzal · Projection Design
Kimberly Mark Webb · Stage Manager
Cynthia Caywood, PhD · Dramaturg
Mona Golabek · Lisa Jura
“An astonishing tour de force…Mona Golabek doesn’t just tell a great story. Seated at a concert grand, she accompanies her tale with music that infuses, illustrates, amplifies and elevates The Pianist of Willesden Lane to make the personal universal and another generation so personal that you can’t help but feel your heart swell in response. Great music can do that. Skillfully blended with an affecting tale, it can do even more. If there was a dry eye in the house at Wednesday’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre opening, my own were too filled with tears to see it…The first movement—brilliantly, probingly performed by Golabek—sets up the fraught conditions in 1938 Vienna. The second intensifies the dramatic perils of the Blitz. The third brings the piece to its passionate resolution…Stunningly good.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Remarkable…What makes it so powerful as a theater piece is the music in combination with the story. Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor features prominently in this tale, but we also hear some Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach and even a little Gershwin, among others. The music is infused with emotion generated by the story itself but also by the act of Golabek reaching through history and her family tree to connect, musically, with her mother and grandmother and their powerful stories.”—Theater Dogs
“Deeply moving…Pianist strikes a deep chord in its audience because it uses the power of music to reveal the fragility of humanity. Based on a book by Golabek and Lee Cohen, it’s a deeply moving elegy for a family struggling to hold onto what they value amid the chaos of war…There’s no denying the intensity of her narrative, the ache of her family legacy. To be sure, she’s got an endearing, matter-of-fact air that belies the tragedy of her tale. And her mastery as a musician lends to the emotional ferocity of the play, its depth and sweep. As she sits at the Steinway, communing with the mysteries of Bach and Debussy, history turns into a symphony.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I’m addicted to words: their ability to describe the world, to argue with each and every god, to grow inside the most remote and tender parts of ourselves. Words are the lifeline of our stories, our narratives that create meaning and sustain us beyond what we think we can bear. In the hands of a great writer, their power is both intoxicating and even intimidating. A brilliant poem or novel or play can give me an adrenaline rush that feels nothing short of ecstatic.
And yet, and yet…how shallow words can be! As far as their reach can take us, it often only reveals the places they cannot go; for words live on the surface of our consciousness, groping to give shape to the vast, unknowable, volatile forces that live underneath and around us. During our most intense experiences they almost always fail us. They simply can’t measure up. In the most dramatic moments of our lives we remain speechless, searching for another way to express ourselves, something that captures what cannot be completely captured.
Which leads us to music. The Pianist of Willesden Lane lives in the space where words end and music begins. A true story describing a young girl’s escape from Nazi Germany to London, the play is really the story of how music sustains us, connects us, and even saves us. A young girl arrives in a strange city, bereft of her family, left with a kind of aloneness that only music can comfort. The story is told to us, years after the fact, by the young girl’s daughter, who can only reveal the full story by letting us imagine it through music. The words of the text give way to musical notes, to soaring classical compositions that free our imaginations and tap into another realm of experience. We can choose to go anywhere with the music, through whatever portal the music evokes.
Those of you who saw Hershey Felder perform this past summer will not be surprised to learn that he is the director of this show. Mr. Felder has built a career mining the theatrical power of words and music. For this project, he has helped Mona Golabek give voice to her astonishing story. Together they take us to a place that both re-creates history and lets us retrieve parts of our own lives and bring them into the light of the present. Enjoy the view.
Unaccompanied minors: The story of the Kindertransport
By Sam Basger
Broken glass, ashes, and bloodshed: this was Kristallnacht, the night of the systematic destruction of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, where over 90 people lost their lives across Germany and Austria on November 9, 1938. Finally, after years of increasingly hostile discrimination policies, the British could no longer deny that there was a sinister threat to Jewish existence in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The issue was brought to Westminster, Britain’s seat of power in London, where, on November 21, Jewish and Quaker campaigners from groups such as the British Committee for the Jews of Germany and the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany fought to pass a bill allowing the temporary admission of up to 10,000 children into England. Acting with haste, the groups planned for the first Kindertransport train to depart from Germany on December 1, 1938, liberating 206 children, most of them left homeless after their orphanage in Berlin was burned down. Dozens more from Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia would follow over the next year and a half.
Children up to the age of 17, some carrying suitcases, others carrying infants that their parents had charged them to protect, and all of them identified by a numbered label, were packed onto trains and sent west to Rotterdam. From the Hook of Holland, the children would then board an overnight ferry, crossing the North Sea and arriving in Harwich, UK, approximately 24 hours after they departed from their respective homelands. This was the traditional Kindertransport journey, but there was also at least one ship that left from Hamburg directly, and small aircrafts flying from Prague that could only fit 20 children, though these flights ceased when Czechoslovakia was invaded in March 1939.
Holland at the time was a sanctuary from the Nazi-annexed territories; it was necessary for the children to reach ports in Holland or Belgium because, not long after the establishment of the Kindertransport, the German government forbade the use of German seaports. The last recorded Kindertransport, the SS Bodegraven, left Holland on May 14, 1940, the day of the blitzkrieg on Rotterdam when the Dutch military was forced to surrender to the Nazis. Taking fire from the Germans, the freighter had no choice but to cross the English Channel and dock in Britain via Liverpool on the west coast. By this time, over 9,500 children, mostly Jewish, but also children of mixed parentage, political prisoners, and undesirables, had been saved from almost certain death.
German and Austrian Jewish organizations were responsible for planning the transports and choosing the children who would travel. Generally, priority was given to the children whose emigration was urgent because their parents were in concentration camps or were no longer able to support them, as well as to homeless children and orphans. In Vera Fast’s book, Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport, she describes the process of how parents applied for their child’s place:
The procedure for obtaining a place on the Kindertransport involved sending an application and photograph to the German provincial social worker who then forwarded them to Berlin. The application included a signed statement from the parent…agreeing to entrust the child to the care of the Committee and to any step the Committee may take in the interest of the child. The last question on the form asked them to state their religion from the following options—Jew Orthodox, Jew Liberal, Jew but not practicing, Protestant, Catholic, Quaker, Freethinker. Parents were also required to sign a document agreeing to have their child placed in any available home, even with a non-Jewish family if no Jewish accommodation was obtainable.
Desperate parents were known to sneak their children onto train platforms, or hide their infants in laundry baskets and push them into the carriage as the doors were about to close. Others would follow Committee members around town, pleading their case. But while parents knew that the transport was the best chance of safety they could hope to obtain for their children, for some the separation was too much to bear and, in those cases, they would snatch their children back off the train toward an uncertain future.
Upon arrival in Harwich, children that had guarantors, or foster families, were whisked off on another train to London’s Liverpool Street Station, where they would be collected and taken to their temporary homes. Younger children that had no accommodation waiting for them were sent to a children’s home in Broadstairs, Kent, while others were housed at empty summer holiday camps. Eventually, those children were dispersed all over the United Kingdom, if not with foster families, then to hostels, group homes, or farms. Those over the age of 14 who were not sponsored by individuals and sent to boarding schools or foster care were incorporated into Britain’s labor force. After a few weeks of training, the children were generally tasked with agrarian work, manufacturing, or domestic service.
Not only did the Kindertransport program ensure the survival of the children, but it also gave their parents a better chance of escaping themselves unhindered by their young offspring, although, sadly, this was often not the case. Even without their parents, some of the children managed to maintain their Jewish faith and practices. Melissa Hacker, president of the Kindertransport Association whose mother was relocated to Britain on the transport, said that her mother was placed with a Church of England family where she was mailed a correspondence course by a British Rabbi. “This was more Jewish education than she had had in Vienna,” she said, going on to state that “The vast majority, has a strong sense of Jewish identity, whether secular, cultural or religious.”
After the war, a majority of the Kindertransport refugees remained in Britain, while others left for the Jewish state of Israel (officially established in 1948), the United States, Canada, or Australia. Very few, however, returned to Germany or Austria. For some, without their families and in the aftermath of the harrowing war, those places would never truly feel like home again.
The London Blitz
By Julie McCormick
By 1940, all that stood between Hitler and total domination of Europe was the narrow stretch of the English Channel. To conquer the British Isles, careful plans for a sea invasion and air attacks were made, and from September 7, 1940 until May 21, 1941, the Nazi German air force, or Luftwaffe, dropped approximately 100 tons of bombs on London. “The Blitz,” as this nightly assault became known, is short for “Blitzkrieg,” or literally, “lightning war,” and refers to the Nazi’s swift and ruthless invasion tactics. Over 40,000 civilians lost their lives, tens of thousands more were injured, and almost no city block was left untouched. London was not the only British city targeted by the Luftwaffe, but it was the most consistently and heavily shelled.
Britain joined the war in 1939, and after Norway and France fell to the Nazis in 1940, it seemed increasingly likely that an invasion attempt would be made on the British Isles, whether by sea or by air. As the coastlines were fortified and internal infrastructures like roads and bridges booby-trapped and tank-proofed, the country readied itself for the devastating effects of an attack.
The theory was that by carefully targeting a country’s means of military production, it was possible to destroy it economically and to also demolish morale in the civilian population. The horrors of the bombing at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s were a raw reminder of what could happen to the UK. Anti-aircraft technology was not particularly effective at the time—roughly 30,000 shells were fired for every plane that was brought down—so once the planes made it overhead, it was very difficult to prevent them from dropping their bombs. Although anti-aircraft guns improved as the war went on, the most energy was focused on trying to divert the planes off course, and failing that, to try and minimize the damage the bombs would inflict.
Apart from a rudimentary (although ingenious) radio tracking system, pilots and bombers still relied a great deal on sight to find their targets. In order to frustrate the German bombers flying on night raids, a six-year long blackout was issued—absolutely no lights could be visible after dark. They were either hidden behind thick dark curtains or mitigated by an earlier bedtime. To provide some relief from the incessant attacks, the British set up over 500 hundred decoy sites across the United Kingdom. Under the guidance of Colonel Sir John Turner and with the help of movie production companies, hundreds of dummy airfields, factories, foundries, and even towns popped up across the landscape. Fake buildings and equipment, strategically placed lights and fires, and the bravery of a few operators made these sites look like the real things from the air. They were so convincing that there was a real danger of British planes trying to use the false air strips, and some even fooled locals on the ground. Official figures from 1946 claim that the decoy airfields were bombed 443 times, and the towns about 100, which drew about 5 percent of the bombs meant for real cities, and saved approximately 2,500 lives in the process.
As clever as the decoys were, however, there was no missing the metropolis that was London, even with the strictest of blackout orders at night. It was much safer for civilians to leave the bulls-eye on the Thames for more bucolic climes. Three million people evacuated London and other targeted cities during the war, and if the whole family couldn’t go, then children were sent to stay with relatives or in sympathetic homes. About 800,000 children from London alone were sent into the countryside. These were the circumstances in which the Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis’ immortal The Chronicles of Narnia first encountered a certain magical wardrobe.
Despite this dip in population, London remained a bustling city, and provisions had to be made for the safety of those who remained. Bomb shelters began cropping up, civilian support groups abounded, and air-raid drills became a regular part of life. Once the shelling started in September, Londoners could seek security in a number of different places. Covered trenches were dug in parks, and public shelters built of brick and concrete appeared along roadways should unlucky pedestrians or motorists be caught in the open during a sudden raid. Initially the administration did not want to allow Londoners to take shelter in Tube stations during attacks. They were concerned that once inside, civilians wouldn’t want to leave and go about the business of keeping the city running during the day, but when people started camping on the platforms en masse anyway, they had no choice but to change the policy. While some stations were ultimately outfitted more comfortably with bunks, chemical toilets, and canteens, the Tube stations had not been designed with high numbers of overnight guests in mind. Many Londoners found themselves waiting for hours in line to enter the tunnels (sometimes a child or female member of the household would be sent to reserve a spot as early as 11:30am), only to be packed in head to foot like tinned sardines, with unsanitary slop buckets and inadequate lighting a miserable counterpoint to the shriek of bombs overhead.
Despite the iconic photographs of Londoners nestled on platforms with camp blankets, Thermoses of tea, and pajamas, only about 150,000 people found shelter in the Tube during the Blitz’s night raids. The rest went to other community shelters, or more likely, stayed at home. Because it was cheaper to build structures without basements, most homes didn’t have one, and so residents needed to find a different place to hide.
The backyard Anderson shelter was a 6’ by 6.5’ by 4.5’ chamber made of 14 sheets of corrugated steel. You would settle the shelter into a four-foot hole dug in the lawn, and then heap dirt over the arched top. The rounded ceiling was able to withstand more force than a flat one would, and the flexible metal would bend under pressure, rather than shatter like concrete or brick. Outfitted with bunk beds, a water pump, and escape hatch, an entire family (and their pets) could fit in one of these tiny but effective shelters. To keep up morale, there were competitions to see who could plant the prettiest garden over their buried Anderson shelter. They turned out to be quite sturdy—many ended up as garden sheds after the war; you can still spot the occasional one. The government issued over three million before and during the war, and would give them to families whose income was less than ￡5 a week for free.
The Morrison shelter was developed by John Baker during World War II for in-home use. It had a steel plate top, wire mesh sides, and a metal mattress floor, which made it strong enough to withstand falling debris or being shoved through the floor by a collapsing wall. They were large enough for a whole family to sleep in at night, and could be repurposed as dining tables during the day. These too were distributed cheaply or for free in mass quantities.
While some options were safer (or more palatable) than others, nothing provided 100 percent protection during an attack. A direct hit would damage even a Tube station with disastrous consequences, and there was also considerable danger from falling debris, fire, and flooding. Incendiary bombs created blazing fires that not only consumed buildings, but also made the auxiliary firefighters who rushed to the scene particularly vulnerable to secondary attacks from bombers. Changes in air pressure from the extraordinary heat of a fire or the force of an explosion could suck away an entire wall or floor, causing a building to collapse in seconds.
As terrible as the violent and uncertain nights were, the morning after a raid must have held a particular sort of dread. How eerie it would have been to emerge, mole-like, from underground, not knowing what wreckage would meet your eyes. The chaos of utter devastation juxtaposed with the preternatural calm of settling dust. The curious focus of an explosion—by what logic would the Chamber of the House of Commons be destroyed, but St. Paul’s left unscathed?
It was expected that the people of London would suffer from massive psychological trauma, and while it took decades to rebuild the city and a lifetime for the physical, emotional, and economic scars of WWII to heal, the general populace seemed to remain quite cheerful at the time. According to a Gallup Poll, only 3 percent of the British population believed they would lose the war in May of 1940, and by the end of that year, the number was immeasurably small. A new “Blitz mentality” took hold and was soundly encouraged by Churchill’s rousing speeches and unflagging nationalism. Slogans like “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril. Defend it with all your might” abounded, and plans for civilian resistance in the event of an invasion were widely distributed. Millions of men and women enrolled in volunteer organizations like the Civil Defence, Air Raid Precaution (ARP), and Women’s Volunteer Service (WVS) and served as air-raid wardens, auxiliary ambulance drivers, auxiliary firefighters, and reserve policemen. The resilience of the British people was held up to the rest of the Allies as a beacon of hope and an inspiration to continue to fight the good fight as long as anyone was left to do so.
However, there was a darker side to the shining propaganda distributed by Churchill’s administration. Dissenting voices were silenced in order to keep up morale, and the Emergency Powers Act quietly gave the government enormous power over people and property during the war. Yet even as these unfavorable undercurrents come to light and give us a slightly more balanced picture of that time, there is no denying the overwhelming narrative of the British people’s tremendous fortitude and courage. That attitude was a source of great strength for the British and Allied forces during the dark days of WWII and the arduous reconstruction process, and continues to be the way that moment in history is remembered.
Behind the scenes with Mona
Get the backstory on The Pianist of Willesden Lane by going behind the scenes with Mona Golabek.
Brava to the Pianist
See why The Pianist of Willesden Lane earned a rousing response from audiences and critics alike.
Prelude of Pianist
Director Hershey Felder offers an inside look at the poignant Pianist of Willesden Lane.
Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone introduces The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
Want to listen to select articles from the program? Play these audio files online—or download and listen to them.
Hear songs from the show.
Photos courtesy of mellopix.com
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Our literary department has compiled this select list of tidbits to enrich your experience of The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
- The Pianist of Willesden Lane was adapted for the stage by Hershey Felder, based on a book written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.
- Mona Golabek is a pianist, co-writer of the book on which the play is based, and solo performer of her own mother’s story. The article from the Chicago Tribune explains how she met Hershey Felder, her collaborator on the project, and how, subsequently, she became an actor.
- Also from the Chicago Tribune, this interview with Felder discusses his work as an artist and as a producer in Chicago.
- Cleveland, Ohio-based classical radio station WCLV has an hour-long discussion with Hershey Felder about his latest incarnation as Leonard Bernstein and the process of his work.
Britain at war
- Read the transcript of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s speech to the British people on September 3, 1939, announcing that the nation was at war with Germany, following Hitler’s failure to withdraw his troops from Poland.
- Listen to the actual speech delivered by King George VI to his subjects across the world, urging them to stand firm in the coming days of war. This historical moment was recently depicted in the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper.
Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940 by Margaret Gaskin
- This book uses firsthand accounts of Londoners as well as archival materials to bring one of the worst nights of the Blitz to vivid life.
The Myth of the Blitz by Angus Calder
- The story of British bravery and fortitude through the Blitz and challenging reconstruction period after the war is certainly the most popular one. Angus Calder investigates what this narrative has meant to the world in the past 70 years, and attempts to shed light on some of the less well-known aspects of life during the war.
- It can be easy to forget sometimes that the world did not exist in black and white before color photography became the norm. These stunning color photos from Time magazine are a vivid reminder of the daily realities Londoners faced during the war.
- Julia Margaret (Myra) Hess was born to a Jewish family in Kilburn, London in 1890, and began playing music at a very early age. In 1903, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music under the tutelage of Tobias Matthay, a celebrated teacher and composer. From 1939 to 1946, throughout the period of World War II, she performed regularly at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, being made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1941.
Raising the index and middle fingers in the air for victory was an act popularized by Winston Churchill. This symbol gives the protagonist of the play courage before she enters her big audition. This Washington Post article, “From Churchill to Libya: How the V Symbol Went Viral” by Nathaniel Zelinsky, charts the history of the V sign as a symbol of victory, peace, or celebration.
- The phrase has become synonymous with the steel resolve of the British to persevere in the face of adversity during the Blitzkrieg of World War II, but the posters emblazoned with these words were not actually in wide distribution during this period. This short article gives a brief background and features a link to an informative video.
Music featured in The Pianist of Willesden Lane (according to the script)
- Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16, 1868.
- Claude Debussy, Clair de Lune (Moonlight Sonata), Suite Bergamasque, 1905.
- Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2, 1894.
- Frederic Chopin, B flat major, Op. 9 No. 1, Nocturnes, 1832.
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Partita No.1 in B flat major, 1720.
- Frederic Chopin, Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor, Op. 31, 1837.
- Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight), 1801.
- Alexander Scriabin, Etude Op. 8 No. 12 in D# minor, 1894.
- Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, These Foolish Things Remind Me of You, 1936.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff, Prelude in C-Sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2, 1892.
- The Kindertransport Association is a volunteer-run organization composed of survivors and their descendents dedicated to sharing the stories and honoring those who made the Kindertransport possible, in addition to supporting charitable work that aids children in need.
Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport by Vera Fast
- A thorough analysis of the Kindertransport movement that incorporates previously unpublished materials and the stories of some of the relocated refugees.
Kindertransport: A Play in Two Acts by Diane Samuels
- A play influenced by real stories, the piece is about a 10-year-old German girl displaced in England and the ongoing trauma she suffers from her experiences, bleeding into the relationship with her own daughter.
- Visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC) website, featuring an encyclopedic reference to names and terms associated with the Holocaust.
- Established in Jerusalem in 1953, Yad Vashem is the global center of study of the Holocaust, which is also known as the “Shoah” in Hebrew. Yad Vashem is committed to the “four pillars of remembrance”: commemoration, documentation, research, and education. It is the institution’s ongoing mission to keep the reality of the Holocaust at the forefront of people’s minds.
- This museum in Downtown Berkeley, partnered with the University of California, is a local archive for Jewish cultural history and also functions as a venue for research and teaching.