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Shoah Foundation Panel Promotes the Healing Power of Music

One panelist, Mona Golabek, shared the story of how music helped her mother Lisa Jura survive the Holocaust as a 14-year-old.
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December 2, 2021
Mona Golabek

USC Shoah Foundation convened a panel on November 17 to illustrate the power of music to heal people who have experienced trauma. The online event was hosted by the Willesden Project, a global initiative from USC Shoah Foundation, The Koret Foundation, and Hold On To Your Music that aims to “bring the power of music and story to young people to contribute to their development as empathetic, knowledgeable and resilient individuals” and reshape Holocaust education. The panel featured experts in music, education and psychology.

One panelist, Mona Golabek, shared the story of how music helped her mother Lisa Jura survive the Holocaust as a 14-year-old. Golabek is a concert pianist, actress and the co-author of the book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which is about her mother’s experience fleeing Vienna on the Kindertransport to England before the Nazis invaded.

“My mother’s story is all about how the music saved her life and gave her the strength to survive,” Golabek told the Journal. “Any time there was pain or uncertainty or darkness, she would escape into the music. She told me when Kristallnacht took place and she saw through a window her father being beaten and made to wash the streets, my grandma was so desperate, she went into the room where the piano was and she played ‘Clair de Lune’ by [Claude] Debussy in an effort to calm my mother.”

“My mother’s story is all about how the music saved her life and gave her the strength to survive.” — Mona Golabek

Golabek now travels the world and performs a live stage show for students studying the Holocaust. She plays the piano and shares her mother’s story to illustrate that through the darkness, music brought hope. 

Another panelist, Dr. Beth Meyerowitz, a professor emerita of psychology at USC, shared statistics about the prevalence of trauma in young people in the United States. She pointed to several national studies that indicate that by the end of adolescence, a majority of young people (between 60-70%) will have experienced a traumatic event.

“[Trauma] changes our bodies at every level,” Meyerowitz said. “It changes how we think, it changes how our nervous system operates, our hormones operate. It puts us in survival mode. Our body puts all its resources toward helping that event, that life-threatening scary event. That means we’re not thinking broadly. We’re narrowing our perspective. We’re operating in survival mode.”  

Meyerowitz went on to explain that there is science that supports the healing powers of music. She indicated that there’s a whole body of research that documents that listening to music lowers stress hormones, improves immune functioning and calms thinking. Music counteracts the very survivor mode responses. 

During the pandemic, Meyerowitz said, surveys show that there is an even higher rate of traumatizing events, affecting upwards of 80-90% of adolescents. Many of these include anxieties about adolescents’ own health and that of their family and friends, financial difficulties and an overarching anxiety about meaning in a world wrought with such pervasive threats. And of course, they’re experiencing the perils of remote learning during such an important time of socialization in their lives. 

Dr. Monika Wiley, the director of fine arts for Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia, talked about not only teaching music to children, but having them comprehend and relate to the meaning behind every note and word, appreciate music history and understand the idea that music heals the soul. 

Alejandro Perez, Jr., creative consultant for Journeyman Ink, also spoke about the power of music in helping children learn. “Music was the catalyst for retaining large amounts of information in small amounts of time,” the former kindergarten teacher said.    

Ultimately, the panel’s message was focused on creating avenues for youth to be exposed to music, since at some point, it will inevitably be needed to help them work through a traumatic experience. 

“[As] the children of survivors, we inherit subconsciously the feelings of our parents,” Golabek said. “The message they gave me is you take something dark in life and you go to the light. You walk a positive path. Instinctively I learned from them to be worthy of the gifts, make it count, make your path count.”

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