Mona Golabek: Sharing a Personal History of the Holocaust Onstage

Mona Golabek

Mona Golabek

By Robert Israel

Telling stories of the Holocaust on stage is a daunting and mind-numbing task. The sheer immensity of how six million Jews were slaughtered cannot be easily grasped. Stage plays in recent years, in order to successfully tell that story, have focused on a single individual – or families – swept away by the murderous Nazis. In Boston, the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston staged Captors starring the incomparable actor Michael Christopher as Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi architects of the concentration camps, and we witnessed – and learned in harrowing detail — how he ordered the systematic demise of millions.

Yet while the stories must be told, in the same way that the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem is compelled to “travel from land to land” to tell his tale, the challenge is to tell them well, to impart on the memory indelible images. Not every play or film is able to do this effectively.

The gifted concert pianist and author Mona Golabek who appeared at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center in Boston recently adds to the canon of these successful productions with her haunting show which she is touring nationally. Directed by Hershey Felder, a Canadian-born musician, actor and director who is himself the son of survivors, it tells the story of one woman and one Jewish family caught in the death grip of the Nazi machine. Titled The Pianist of Willesden Lane it is a worthy addition to the catalog of Holocaust dramas.

Through words and music played on an onstage concert grand piano, Ms. Golabek shares details about her mother, Lisa Jura, a Jewess living in Austria before the Anschluss, who dared to dream of becoming a concert pianist. Through vivid descriptions, aided by the onstage use of projected photographic images on screens behind her, we are taken on a musical and historical kaleidoscopic journey. We soon learn that her dreams are about to be drowned out by the Nazi jackboots who have marched into Vienna and how their arrival changes the course of personal and collective histories.

Music played on the piano is sentimental, dreamy, and rhapsodic, even when rendered into snippets. One cannot attend a production of Ms. Golabek’s show without thinking of Adrien Brody’s portrayal of pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilmnan in Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist, which incorporated Chopin’s nocturnes in a similar manner.

But in this play, these brief musical selections – which include pieces by Beethoven, Grieg, Bach and others – also enhance the complexities of the musical compositions, and, by turns, the narrative. It is a purposeful device which Ms. Golabek explains is used to expose “the layers of beautiful sound.” Music, we come to discover, is like life itself: a whirlwind of sound, or just a whisper – that reflects our souls.

It should be noted that Mona Golabek is a woman of slight build, with thin arms and a warm, animated face that lends itself easily into taking on the personas of not only her mother, but also by those her mother encounters: a teacher, a Nazi soldier, or a Jewish boy who fancies her,(who has similarly managed to escape Austria via the kinder transport, a life-saving mission that rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazi occupied territories). While the production demands a certain physical prowess one might attribute to a person of greater stature, Ms. Golabek’s physical fragilities grace the stage with such wistfulness they underscore her character’s vulnerability.

The play takes us to England, to descriptions of the Blitz that destroyed countless British neighborhoods and homes, including a hostel where Lisa is living. While the narrative borders on the mundane – details of all the children living together, their names and attributes – Ms. Golabek keeps us interested through animated gestures, the snippets of music interspersed throughout, and keeps us riveted by the anticipation of details of more dramatic moments to come. These include her mother’s debut at Royal Albert Hall in London, and the arrival of V.E. Day.

There has already come a time when memories like those shared in this play are handed down to grandchildren of survivors who, in search of their roots, go on to tell their children and their great-grandchildren. Each of these stories is important, but especially when the stories are intertwined with dramatic devices that help us feel only to keenly the human elements.

To experience this story with Mona Golabek, the daughter of a survivor, we come to learn that her mother Lisa Jura was one of the lucky ones who managed to get on the train to freedom. Her survival helped to defeat the Nazi edict to exterminate an entire people. She and others like her spawned a new generation, and now that generation is carrying this legacy forward.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge Media Network (Boston).


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