Greg Dawson could never have imagined that he would one day write a Holocaust survival story about his own mother, considering that as a child he did not even know he was Jewish. Indeed, the original religion of his mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya, would have never been revealed were it not for the efforts of two Israeli cousins to find relatives who survived the Holocaust.
Had he been more aware as a child, Dawson might have questioned his mother’s dark skin and her fluency in Russian, qualities that were not at all typical of other parents in all-American Bloomington, Indiana. His journal, written with his [living] mother’s consent and help, sheds light on the historical details which would ultimately be the key to understanding how the forces at work in Eastern Europe would predetermine and shape his mother’s childhood and her incredible survival.
In his account of Stalin’s brutal takeover of Communist Russia in 1927, Dawson demonstrates Russia’s cultural appreciation for music, which thrived throughout the country even as thousands of Russians lay starving in the streets. Zhanna, whose musical genius was apparent by the age of five, began a childhood career of piano concertizing, which won her and her equally gifted younger sister scholarships that would allow their family to put food on the table, even as death surrounded them. Then, following a brief idyllic period after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact, Russia was attacked by three thousand German tanks and three million German soldiers and life for Zhanna and her family changed forever. In a wrenching scene, her father, knowing that he and his family faced imminent death, bribed a German guard to allow his daughters to escape, flee the impending doom, change their names, create new identities, and make their way as young teens — brilliant piano prodigies — entertaining German soldiers, and “hiding,” as the memoir’s title suggests “in the spotlight.” An extraordinary story of another unlikely yet magnificent survival. Bibliography.
Ruth Seif is a retired chairperson of English at Thomas Jefferson High School in NYC. She served as administrator in the alternative high school division.