Hid­ing in the Spot­light: A Musi­cal Prodi­gy’s Sto­ry of Sur­vival, 1941 – 1946

  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
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.

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