I have never before been reduced to tears by a book.... During the hours I spent reading The Children of Willesden Lane I experienced tears of joy, tears of pain, tears for the human condition and finally the soul cleansing tears of a spirit renewed. I literally cried my way through the last 140 pages of The Children of Willesden Lane while sitting in seat 6C of a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Houston. Not a simple moistening of the eyes, but a steady stream of tears pouring down my cheeks as I experienced a completely unexpected range of intense emotion. I have read hundreds of nonfiction books and never, absolutely never, have I experienced anything even vaguely akin to this extraordinarily down-to-earth book.
The first third of the book feels like getting reacquainted with an old friend. Despite the tragic backdrop of the era, the themes and the setting feel warm and familiar. The character development is just detailed enough to evoke the distinct identities of the major characters without setting them in stone. Instead of nailing down every conceivable detail, Mona Golabek leaves plenty of room for the reader to personalize the lead characters. As I dug deeper and deeper into the storyline, it was uncanny how I began to identify more and more closely with the central characters. It is almost as if the book was crafted to ensure that Lisa, Aaron, Johnny, Gina, Gunter, Hans, Mr. Hardesty, Mrs. Canfield and Mrs. McRae would gradually assume the characteristics of the people who have made profound differences in my life. It is worthy to note that none of the characters are completely idealized. Whether it is cowardice, indifference, vanity, petty jealously, self-pity or the emotional disconnect that many soldiers suffer, the characters in The Children of Willesden are presented "warts and all."
Curiously, three of the book's most powerful subtexts are so deeply rooted in the story line that I am not sure that either the heroine (in her telling) or the authors (in their writing) intended them to be integral parts of the story. The first is "trust your instincts... seize the moment before it passes you by." Although 10,000 children were saved by the Kindertransport, how many eventual Holocaust victims hesitated, convincing themselves that they needed just one more piece of evidence, and then one more and then yet another, until it was too late? It is all too easy for us to convince ourselves that the opportunities we have today will still be there tomorrow. This, whether it is a matter of life and death or a matter of life and love. This observation is in no way a condemnation of the victims of the Holocaust or any other human tragedy. It is merely an acknowledgment of a theme that is repeated in any accurate accounting of human behavior. How else do you explain the half-empty lifeboats from the Titanic? The second powerful subtext has to do with the nature of beauty and accomplishment. After reading the entire text ask yourself a series of simple questions. As a child, was Lisa Juras more beautiful when she was wearing her Sunday best with her hat tilted just so or when she was tired, dirty and hungry yet somehow found the courage to take responsibility for the contents of the basket on the train? As a teenager, was Lisa Juras more beautiful in her fine red dress playing a grand piano or when she was pounding away at the upright piano wearing factory worker garb with bombs falling around her. While Lisa Juras undoubtedly valued both her musical talent and her physical attractiveness, can it truly be said that either were the true sources of her beauty or accomplishment? No, Lisa Juras was never more beautiful than she was courageous and her music was never more accomplished than when its intensity blotted out the onslaught of the London Blitz.... A time during which the piano wasn't even properly tuned! If this be true, Wigmore Hall is merely icing on a cake that was six long years in the baking. The third and no less important subtext is, "True love is that which moves you." Love is not merely a deeply rooted or intense emotion. Love is feelings transformed into action. It was the love of a father for a daughter that gave Abraham Juras the strength to put Lisa on a train headed for a country and people he knew not. It was the love between a daughter and a mother that gave Lisa the strength to pound out the Grieg concerto while bombs were falling around her and later when her fingers were nearly frozen and her body was racked by coughing. And last, we are led to believe in the epilogue that it is the love of a man for a woman that "moved" Michel Golabek to leave Europe for a life in the United States with his beloved Lisa.
It may seem a contradiction, but the strength of this story is its subtlety. Nothing about it feels staged, forced or contrived. There are no torrid love scenes. There are no gruesome accounts of the Holocaust. There are not even detailed accounts of the deaths of some the book's lead characters. Instead, The Children of Willesden Lane is as understated, natural, tragic and heroic as life itself. The Children of Willesden Lane is a remarkable invitation to become part of something intensely personal, a family legacy that spans two continents, four generations and, most importantly, continues to live on today through the descendants of both Lisa Juras and all those that made the Kindertransport a life saving reality.
If there is such a thing as "profound simplicity," Mona Golabek has defined it for us.