The keys of a piano eased the loneliness that set in when a young girl missed her mother. Music lifted the darkness when Great Britain was under attack. And the tunes filled a solemn dance hall as strapping American soldiers prepared to enter combat.
This story of survival and love of music inspired classical pianist Mona Golabek to share her mother’s experience as a Jewish refugee during World War II this week with sixth-grade students in Fort Worth.
“What do you hold on to in the darkest times?” Golabek asked students Tuesday. They were attending one of four piano performances of the book “The Children of Willesden Lane.”
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In the weeks leading up to the performances, sixth-graders read “The Children of Willesden Lane,” described as the true story of “a young Jewish girl’s perseverance in a time of war.”
The sixth-grade students attending a 10:30 a.m. presentation Tuesday at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA were among 6,350 who participated in a “City-Wide Read and Performance,” through a partnership between the Fort Worth school district and Dallas Holocaust Museum.
Performances were held at the Will Rogers Auditorium and the new I.M. Terrell Academy this week.
“Music is the invisible arrow that enters the heart of everyone,” Golabek said, explaining how music can help people rise from the most trying situations.
A refugee’s story
Jura was a Holocaust refugee and passenger of the Kindertransport, a rescue effort that transported Jewish refugee children out of Nazi controlled areas to Great Britain. Jura’s story touches on the lives of refugees and the power of music in dark times.
“Willesden Lane is a stunning testament to the power of music to lift the human spirit and to grant the soul endurance, patience and peace,” Dallas Holocaust Museum President and CEO Mary Pat Higgins wrote in a press release. “It is especially timely in this age of growing division and intolerance that we find ways to encourage positive classroom discussion on anti-discrimination and tolerance.”
A key lesson in the project is the importance of being an “upstander,” also known as a person who stands up against injustice.
At the start of this academic year, each sixth-grade student received a copy of the book to read at school and home. Students learned about tolerance and prejudice across multiple disciplines, including reading, writing, social studies and performing visual arts. They created poems, plays, music and artwork to express feelings about the Holocaust.
Fifteen students were selected as grand champions of a “Letters About Literature Contest.” As grand champions representing 12 campuses, these students will have their letters submitted for consideration in the Library of Congress Letters About Literature National Writing Contest, which awards a $2000 grand prize to the top winner.
Educators and organizers focused on sixth grade, an early middle school grade when children begin to explore who they might become as adults.
“If you give these kinds of powerful messages, at this age, you really have a chance to enter the heart of a beautiful young soul,” Golabek said.
Lessons also touched on themes of intolerance and bigotry, issues Golabek — author and a Grammy nominated classical pianist — stressed through storytelling punctuated by music such as “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven.
Unresolved issues of racism
Students said they were inspired by the story.
“I like this story because she kept moving on and never gave up,” said Lesley Carrillo, 12, a student at Glencrest 6th Grade.
Carrillo said the story stayed with her because she kept thinking about it.
Krishawn Evans, 12, another student from Glencrest 6th Grade, was also moved.
“It made me feel sad,” Evans said. “It made me feel inspired.”
Golabek pointed to a CNN report that anti-Semitism is a continued concern in Europe today. She also recently performed in Pittsburgh, where the Jewish community tries to mend weeks after a mass shooter opened fire at a synagogue.
She said the rabbi from the Tree of Life Synagogue there attended one of the performances along with some congregants “and he said never in his lifetime did he think that he’d see a Krystallnacht — (night of) broken glass — in America.”
“So I think, my mother’s story, even though it is many years ago, has more relevance today given not only the rising racism, prejudice, anti-Semitism — also the tremendous refugee crisis that we see going on and the divisiveness of a dialogue between how to resolve all of these things,” Golabek said.
She said these issues aren’t resolved with hate, but by coming together.
She echoed this message in her departing words to Fort Worth students: “We have no place for hatred.”