Lisa of Willes­den Lane: A True Sto­ry of Music and Sur­vival Dur­ing World War II 

Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, Sarah J. Rob­bins (Adapter),Olga and Alek­sey Ivanov (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – November 29, 2021

Mona Golabek is a clas­si­cal pianist whose moth­er, Lisa Jura Golabek, sur­vived as a Jew­ish refugee on the Kinder­trans­port to Eng­land. She has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten a mem­oir based on her mother’s expe­ri­ence, The Chil­dren of Willes­den Lane, as well as a young reader’s edi­tion of the sto­ry. Lisa of Willes­den Lane is an abridged illus­trat­ed adap­ta­tion of the young reader’s edi­tion. Golabek, and her co-author Lee Cohen, have turned the mem­oir into a fic­tion­al­ized account, intend­ing to hold the atten­tion of a younger audi­ence. The nov­el truth­ful­ly describes the shat­ter­ing world events that led to Lisa’s arrival in Eng­land but focus­es on the hope­ful mes­sage of her sur­vival. By per­sist­ing in her deter­mi­na­tion to become a pianist, she is bet­ter able to with­stand dis­cour­ag­ing con­di­tions and to com­mu­ni­cate hope to her fel­low refugees.

As a Jew­ish child in Vien­na dur­ing the Nazis’ rise to pow­er, Lisa grad­u­al­ly becomes aware that her fam­i­ly is in dan­ger. Her first dis­ap­point­ment in adults hap­pens when her piano teacher tells her that he can no longer teach Jew­ish pupils, attribut­ing his com­pli­ance to the fact that he is not a brave man.” From then on, Lisa seeks pro­tec­tion from those who are brave­ly ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing refugees, but she also becomes self-reliant. Over­all, the nov­el is less focused on unique indi­vid­u­als than on con­vey­ing an inspir­ing les­son, both moral and emotional.

The book cor­rects the impres­sion that refugee chil­dren were always wel­comed with­out ambiva­lence and inte­grat­ed into fam­i­lies. In fact, many were com­pelled to work in fac­to­ries and domes­tic ser­vice in order to con­tribute to their sup­port. Lisa works in a gar­ment fac­to­ry with­out com­plain­ing, but she achieves suc­cess as a musi­cian and even­tu­al­ly makes the tran­si­tion to play­ing piano pro­fes­sion­al­ly. Her chief con­cern, as for many of the chil­dren on the Kinder­trans­port, is to bring the rest of her fam­i­ly to safe­ty. While in most cas­es, this did not hap­pen, she is able to find a spon­sor for her younger sister.

Golabek and Lee make the unusu­al choice of includ­ing text box­es with his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion with­in the nar­ra­tive, although it is a work of fic­tion. This rais­es the inter­est­ing ques­tion of authen­tic­i­ty in Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. Although the novel’s events and char­ac­ters may cor­re­spond close­ly to real ones, the authors still use invent­ed dia­logue and oth­er tech­niques of fic­tion to tell their story.

Lisa of Willes­den Lane includes an epi­logue, pho­tographs, a time­line, addi­tion­al sources, and dis­cus­sion questions.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions