Alias Anna: A True Sto­ry of Out­wit­ting the Nazis

By – March 28, 2022

Zhan­na Arshkan­skaya and her sis­ter, Frina, were vir­tu­al­ly the only sur­vivors of the Nazi slaugh­ter of Jews at Dro­bit­sky Yar, Ukraine, in 1941 – 42. Through the unlike­ly events that some­times allowed Jews to adopt Chris­t­ian iden­ti­ties dur­ing the Holo­caust, they man­aged to evade cap­ture as Anna and Mari­na Moro­zo­va and even­tu­al­ly emi­grate to the Unit­ed States. Zhanna’s son, Greg Daw­son, who has pre­vi­ous­ly chron­i­cled his mother’s life in his book for adults, Hid­ing in the Spot­light, has now col­lab­o­rat­ed with author Susan Hood to inter­pret the same events for mid­dle grade and young adult read­ers. Using poet­ry, they nar­rate both the broad his­tor­i­cal back­ground as well as its spe­cif­ic cat­a­stroph­ic effects on the lives of two Jew­ish chil­dren, both gift­ed musicians.

Pend­ing dan­ger has been a part of Zhanna’s life from a young age. Her child­hood is ini­tial­ly warm and secure, enriched by her family’s love of music, the beat­ing heart of their home.” Soon, Zhan­na and Frina are rec­og­nized as prodi­gies, per­form­ing Bach over the radio, and even­tu­al­ly becom­ing cel­e­brat­ed fig­ures. But anti­semitism always looms, and Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler brings only a brief and illu­so­ry reprieve from the Sovi­et dictator’s mur­der­ous poli­cies. Much worse is to come with Hitler’s 1941 inva­sion of the Sovi­et Union. Even seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed threats, such as an epi­dem­ic of scar­let fever, set the stage with an intense sense of the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that per­vades the lives of every­one in Europe, but par­tic­u­lar­ly Jews.

Before sep­a­rat­ing from his daugh­ter, Zhanna’s father grants her the last piece of advice he will ever give: I don’t care what you do. Just live.” With that moral per­mis­sion, Zhan­na enters a maze of encoun­ters — which, although they are hor­ri­fy­ing, even­tu­al­ly lead to her safe­ty. She is coura­geous and per­sis­tent, but the authors nev­er imply that these qual­i­ties are the only rea­sons she eludes the Nazis. There is no point in the nar­ra­tive where the final results of Zhanna’s tri­als seem inevitable.

Chopin’s Fan­tasie-Impromp­tu, as well as oth­er com­po­si­tions, frame Zhanna’s life. As a child with lit­tle expo­sure to Jew­ish rit­u­al, she is ini­tial­ly attract­ed to the musi­cal sounds of the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church in a funer­al pro­ces­sion. The authors do not bela­bor this irony — like so much else about pre­war Jew­ish life in Europe, it stands on its own as both fact and metaphor. Zhanna’s ded­i­ca­tion to music is exploit­ed and final­ly redeemed; under her assumed iden­ti­ty, she is forced to enter­tain Nazi offi­cers, but lat­er she per­forms for the new­ly lib­er­at­ed inmates of Dachau.

Hood tells Zhanna’s sto­ry through both free verse and a rich array of forms. One chap­ter uses the full alpha­bet as ini­tial let­ters of cat­e­gories for Stalin’s vic­tims. Ele­gies, haiku, cou­plets, and ter­cets, also cap­ture the essence of dif­fer­ent points through dif­fer­ent lens­es. The use of poet­ry is effec­tive, echo­ing in its com­plex­i­ty the music of a sin­gu­lar life caught in the chaos of history.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes exten­sive back­ground mate­r­i­al, pho­tos, sources, lists of musi­cal com­po­si­tions, and poet­ic forms.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Alias Anna is not your aver­age Holo­caust book. Yes, it’s a sto­ry of grit and sur­vival in Nazi-occu­pied Ukraine, but in the hands of accom­plished author Susan Hood, the sto­ry of sib­ling musi­cal prodi­gies Zhan­na and Frina Arshan­skaya becomes some­thing more: a lyri­cal, deeply per­son­al account that brims with rage, hope, and determination.

Adapt­ed from an adult biog­ra­phy by Greg Daw­son, the son of Anna/​Zhanna, Alias Anna is told in verse, play­ful­ly stretch­ing style and form to echo the events of Anna’s life. Words bounce across the page as Anna stud­ies the piano and becomes a musi­cal prodi­gy; they clus­ter claus­tro­pho­bi­cal­ly togeth­er as the Nazi regime clos­es in on the Arshan­skaya fam­i­ly, and they twist and turn with ten­sion as Anna and Frina make a dar­ing escape and rein­vent them­selves as non-Jew­ish musi­cians, stay­ing hid­den by play­ing music right out in the open. Anna’s own words course through the book, quot­ed from let­ters to her grand­daugh­ter and rich with Anna’s own wit, pas­sion, and fury at what she and her sis­ter had to endure. Alias Anna stands out from its peers for its speci­fici­ty, in the details of Anna’s expe­ri­ence as a musi­cian and fierce­ly pro­tec­tive sis­ter, and in the strength of Anna’s own voice woven through Hood’s verse.