The Children of Willesden Lane is a memoir about Jewish children being evacuated from Vienna on the eve of WWII. It is a real tear jerker, not only for the sad situation, but also for the beauty of the music.
Music is a central theme for the story. In 1938, Lisa is a talented pianist at age thirteen, but Vienna is being taken over by Nazis. Jews are persecuted. After her piano teacher is ordered not to teach Jews, people disappear, and Kristallnacht destroys their community, Lisa’s parents fight to find a place for her on a train to take her to safety in England. Her mother sends her away and tells her to hang on to her music.
Lisa and hundreds of other child refugees are taken in by British families. She and twenty other children eventually end up with a Jewish woman in her house on Willesden Lane. They give her a sense of family when her letters to her parents go unanswered. The new family of refugees endures hardships, bombing raids, and scarcity of food and money. Lisa’s piano playing brings a bright spot to their difficult lives.
Several years later in the middle of the war, Lisa’s talent catches the attention of a prestigious school of music, and they offer her a scholarship. They also give her a way out of her factory job by offering her a job as a piano player at a social club. All the while, she is growing up, meeting and losing friends, finding love, and worrying about her family in Austria. Her music supports her and brings her joy.
Although her younger sister made it out of Austria on the last transport to England, the fate of the rest of her family is unknown. During the war, the older Jewish boys become fire brigade volunteers or enlist in the British Army to show their appreciation to the country that took them in. Several of Lisa’s friends die in the war.
After several years at the music school, the war is coming to a close, and Lisa debuts on stage. Her music catches the ear of a Polish French resistance fighter who is destined to become her husband.
The tears in my eyes were not necessarily due to the plight of the children, the injustices done to the Jews, the violence, imprisonment, and murder. I cried because beauty can survive even within the horrors of war. The author captures this perfectly with her descriptions of the music and with instances of such kindness shown to the children.
The brutal, bloody side of war is so often shown in other novels, the shock wears off. In this story, there is enough ugliness of war depicted to keep the story real, but, just as the reality of war was kept as much as possible from the children, so too is it kept from the reader. The memoir is told from the eyes of an innocent girl––not a soldier, nor a casualty of a battle, nor a grizzled politician. It is more powerful that Lisa gradually becomes aware that war is raging, her home was ravaged by the war, and her family is decimated. She takes strength from her music and the love she feels for the “family” that took her in.
Mona Golabek, the author, is the daughter of the main protagonist. The memoir would have been better written by her mother to give the character more authentic emotion. Even so, The Children of Willesden Lane gave me a new perspective on the war and was very rewarding to read.