The USC Shoah Foundation convened a panel Nov. 17 to illustrate the power of music to heal people who have experienced trauma. The online event was organized by the Willesden Project, a global initiative of the USC Shoah Foundation, the Koret Foundation and Hold On To Your Music that aims to “bring the power of music and history to young people to contribute to their development as empathetic, knowledgeable and resilient individuals” and to reshape Holocaust education.The panel included experts in music, education and psychology.
One panelist, Mona Golabek, told how music helped her mother Lisa Jura survive the Holocaust when she was 14. Golabek is a concert pianist, actress and co-author of the book “The Children of Willesden Lane”, which recounts the experience of her mother who fled Vienna on the Kindertransport to England before the Nazi invasion.
“My mother’s story is about how music saved her life and gave her the strength to survive,” Golabek told the Journal. “Whenever there was pain, uncertainty or darkness, she escaped into the music. She told me about when Kristallnacht happened and she saw through a window her father getting beat up and having the streets washed my grandma was so desperate she went to the room where the piano was and she played ‘Clair de Lune’ by [Claude] Debussy to try to calm my mother down.
“My mother’s story is about how music saved her life and gave her the strength to survive.” —Mona Golabek
Golabek now travels the world performing a live 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, professor emeritus of psychology at USC, shared statistics on the prevalence of trauma among young people in the United States. She pointed to several national studies which indicate that by the end of adolescence, a majority of young people (between 60 and 70%) will have experienced a traumatic event.
“[Trauma] changes our body on every level,” Meyerowitz said. “It changes the way we think, it changes how our nervous system works, our hormones work. It puts us in survival mode. Our body is putting all its resources into helping this event, this frightening, life-threatening event. This means that we don’t think broadly. We restrict our perspective. We operate in survival mode.
Meyerowitz went on to explain that there is science that supports the healing powers of music. She said there is a body of research documenting that listening to music reduces stress hormones, improves immune function and calms the mind. The music neutralizes the responses of the very survivable mode.
During the pandemic, Meyerowitz said, surveys show there is an even higher rate of traumatic events, affecting more than 80 to 90 percent of adolescents. Many of these include concerns about the teens’ own health and that of their family and friends, financial hardship, and overall anxiety about meaning in a world marked by such pervasive threats. And of course, they know the perils of remote learning during such an important socializing time in their lives.
Dr. Monika Wiley, Director of Fine Arts at Clayton County Georgia Public Schools, spoke about not only teaching children music, but also making them understand and comprehend the meaning of every note and every word, to appreciate the history of music and to understand the idea that music heals the soul.
Alejandro Perez, Jr., creative consultant for Journeyman Ink, also spoke about the power of music to help children learn. “Music was the catalyst for retaining large amounts of information in a short time,” said the former kindergarten teacher.
Ultimately, the panel’s message focused on creating ways for young people to be exposed to music, because at some point it will inevitably be needed to help them overcome a traumatic experience.
“[As] children of survivors, we unconsciously inherit the feelings of our parents,” Golabek said. “The message they gave me is that you take something dark in life and go towards the light. You are walking a positive path. I instinctively learned from them to be worthy of the gifts , to make it count, to make your journey count.