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In the echoes of history, a story of humanity, hope

‘Follow your dreams. Be someone who stands up for what’s right in life.’

Mona Golabek played the piano and talked about her book "The Children of Willesden Lane" in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross with Cardinal Sean O'Malley.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The archbishop of Boston sits serenely and wordlessly beneath the soaring arches of the grand and nearly empty puddingstone church in the South End.

His hands are folded quietly in his lap as Mona Golabek’s fingers fly across the black-and-white keyboard inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

It is late morning on a brisk and sunny springtime weekday in Boston.

But Golabek’s beautiful, haunting music is a time machine of sorts.

And she is taking him back to the late 1930s, to war-torn Europe during one of humanity’s darkest episodes, when the murderous Nazi regime was in its full and most awful furor.

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She is telling the cardinal the same story her mother told her when she was a little girl in Vienna.

About Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.

“Families were desperate to get a spot on what was known as the Kindertransport — or the children’s rescue train,’’ she is telling Cardinal O’Malley between the piano notes. “My grandfather came home one night after a poker game and announced to his family that he had gotten one ticket. Three daughters. Who would they choose?’’

There was an argument, an argument Mona’s mother sought to avoid by sitting down and playing at the family’s piano.

Finally, and tearfully, Mona’s mother was told. She had been chosen.

“As she walked to the train with her mother hand in hand,” Golabek told the cardinal, “her mother took her face in her hands and said, ‘I want you to make me a promise. Promise me that you will hold onto your music. And never let go.

“ ‘And I will be with you every step of the way through the music. With every phrase, with every note, my darling, I will be with you. And I love you.’ ‘’

Mona Golabek's book "The Children of Willesden Lane," is a memoir about survival in World War II.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

What followed is a terrifying story for the ages, a dark and deadly story now preserved on the pages of history books and part of the long arc of humanity.

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Mona Golabek is the daughter of Lisa Jura, a concert pianist, and French resistance fighter Michel Golabek. Mona’s mother was one of 10,000 Jewish children who were brought to England before World War II as part of the Kindertransport, a mission to save children threatened by the Nazis.

Mona’s mother was rescued, but Mona’s maternal grandparents were murdered at the death camp at Auschwitz. Her two sisters miraculously survived.

Golabek has memorialized that story herself, authoring a memoir about survival in World War II titled “The Children of Willesden Lane,’’ a copy of which she presented to Cardinal O’Malley last week.

O’Malley sees echoes what is happening now in Ukraine.

“You see the goodness and the love that comes out in people in the face of all this evil,’’ O’Malley told me. “And that is a sign of hope. We certainly see that in today’s world in how people are responding to the refugees.

“And, of course, Mona’s message is such an important one because prejudice and hatred are things that are taught to children. And it’s like a hereditary disease that’s passed on from one generation to the next. So, teaching young people to love and to feel their humanity and their connectedness to everybody in the human family is such an important message.’’

That message is now being shared in Catholic schools across the archdiocese through a pilot program involving more than 6,000 schoolchildren, like those at Saint John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester, where kids — dressed in pleated plaid skirts or white shirts and blue pants — in the school’s gymnasium greeted Golabek with a standing ovation the other day when she visited after her cathedral performance.

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Mona Golabek signed her book for fourth-grade student Malia Perkins as other students waited in line at Saint John Paul II Catholic Academy Columbia Campus in Dorchester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“Follow your dreams,’’ Golabek told the schoolchildren. “Be someone who stands up for what’s right in life. Follow your dreams. We must come together as a human family. And, of course, what’s happening in Ukraine — in Russia — right now is just heart-rending.

“But at the same time, these terrible events — like the Holocaust itself — bring out the worst and the best in people.’’

Mona Golabek has learned that lesson firsthand. And that is what makes her performances so powerful and — considering today’s headlines — so real and so relevant.

She has carried on the promise that her mother made to her grandmother. She has never let go of her music. It’s become the rhythm of her life. Its lyrics preserve her powerful, personal story.

“Sometimes, I ask myself: How do I keep going?’ ‘’ she said. “It is exhausting, demanding, challenging. But there are angels who come along the way.’’

Angels like financial benefactors. Like dedicated teachers. Like committed members of the clergy. Like the people in the pews who know full well the power of prayer.

People like Mona Golabek.

“We see history repeating itself over and over and over,’’ she told me. “We know that. What I have been stunned to see is how the African-American community, how the Hispanic community, how the Asian community really relate to this story.

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“They relate to prejudice, racism, the bias, the bullying. And they cheer the story of a Jewish teenager in World War II who held onto her dream and her faith. And made it. Ultimately, this is a story of man’s humanity to man. I’m alive today because that generation saved another generation.

“And you see all these things. All of our hearts are broken by what’s going in Ukraine right now. All of our hearts are broken by what happened in Afghanistan. It’s repetitive. And when will it change? What will be the day of reckoning when it will finally shift?”

And that’s why — in partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation — she is telling her story.

“We’re on a mission to bring this story to the world,’' she said.

When she was done performing for the cardinal, Golabek paused briefly as the wan, almost-springtime sunlight streamed in through stained-glass windows.

“The music will give you strength,’’ she said, and then quietly told Cardinal O’Malley:

“Thank you for one of the greatest honors of my life.’’

The cardinal smiled. He nodded. And then sent this wordless message: The honor is all mine.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.