Ever since I was a toddler, I knew that my grandmother, Lisa Jura Golabek Roberts, was a Holocaust survivor.
During our piano lessons, she awed me with stories of her past. As a little girl, she was a child prodigy in Vienna; when Hitler rose to power, Lisa’s parents sent her on the Kindertransport, a British operation that saved 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis. As my grandmother tearfully boarded the train, her mother told her, "Lisa, hold on to your music, it will always be your best friend in life." Lisa never forgot her mother’s last words to her.
Not only did she become an internationally renown concert pianist, she passed on her music to her two daughters, Mona Golabek and Renee Golabek Kaye, and her four grandchildren, myself included. On Nov. 17., we will perform some of Lisa’s favorite music in a concert to benefit Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.
My mother, Renee, told me that Lisa began teaching her and my aunt, Mona, to play piano when they were small children. There were five pianos in the house, and my grandmother used to roller skate (literally) back and forth while teaching her two daughters and the other students who swarmed in and out of the house.
When they were in high school, my mother and aunt left the campus every day at noon to go home and practice for hours in the back studio. As child prodigies, they often performed at the Hollywood Bowl and in competitions. They went on to study at Juilliard School and became world-renowned Grammy-nominated concert pianists.
By the time I was a toddler, Lisa was already teaching me piano. When I was in the third grade, we moved onto her Beverlywood street; every day after school, I eagerly walked down the block for my lesson. As I entered the front door, Chopin, Debussy, Liszt and Schumann filled my ears. My grandmother always greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and then silently took my hand and led me to the piano.
Lisa did not teach like most teachers. She didn’t just go over notes, theory and scales. Instead, she focused on feeling each note. For example, while teaching me her favorite piece of all time, Debussy’s "Claire De Lune," she told me, "’Claire De Lune,’ my grandchild, means moonlight. Imagine that you are in a golden meadow in the evening, looking at the shimmering moonlight overhead. Now close your eyes and put the emotions and beauty you feel into your music."
I was 12, the same age Lisa was when she first learned the piece after arriving in England on the Kindertransport.
Often during our lessons, I stared in wonder as my grandmother’s graceful hands flickered across the piano. But I was even more in awe of her strength of character. I tried to imagine leaving my parents forever and moving to a new country all alone, yet it was too painful to contemplate.
One of my last memories of Lisa took place after one of her many surgeries for ovarian cancer in the late 1990s. I slept next to her bed on the floor that evening, too frightened to leave her alone. In the middle of the night, I awakened to her quiet sobs. As I turned, she began shouting in her sleep for her "mama." I took her in my arms and held her.
I have played in many concerts and recitals since my Lisa died almost five years ago. Recently, I attended the 60th reunion of the Kindertransport, where my family and I performed, as a way to thank the British people for saving my grandmother. We also performed on the BBC.
When we appeared at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, upon the publication of Lisa’s recently released biography, "The Children of Willesden Lane," I began the evening with her favorite piece.
As I prepared to play, I could not help but remember the lesson in which she had taught me "Claire De Lune." I closed my eyes and thought of the moonlight over the meadow, but mostly flashed back to my beloved Lisa. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I somehow felt her presence beside me. I pressed my hands on the keyboard and gently played the first chords.
“Mona Golabek & Renee Golabek-Kaye Together Again in Concert” will be held at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 17. at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 652-7354, ext. 223.
Micheke Goldman is a junior at Milken Community High School.