Hiding in the Spotlight

A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946

by Greg Dawson

Hardcover, 278 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Title
Hiding in the Spotlight
Subtitle
A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946
Author
Greg Dawson

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Book Summary

The author relates the remarkable story of his pianist mother, a child prodigy who escaped certain death when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, adopted a new identity, and came under the protection of a Nazi commander who heard her play.

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Excerpt: Hiding In The Spotlight

HIDING in the SPOTLIGHT

A MUSICAL PRODIGY'S STORY OF SURVIVAL, 1941-1946


PEGASUS BOOKS

Copyright © 2009 Greg Dawson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60598-045-4

Chapter One

Ber dyansk, ukraine-1930

The room was slowly filling with the first gray light of morning when Zhanna awoke. As she did almost every night, Zhanna had fallen asleep in the living room to a lullaby of Rossini and Strauss, Bizet and Tchaikovsky. Her father, Dmitri, on violin, and his good friend, Nicoli, at the piano, played deep into the night, their sheet music illuminated by candles and kerosene lamps. Zhanna and her younger sister, Frina, shared a bedroom, but on the nights Nicoli came to play, Zhanna never saw her bed.

I enjoyed the music so much, they wouldn't dare to put me to bed anywhere but the living room. The decision was made to put a bed in the living room for me. Evenings meant music with my father and Nicoli. Every night was a celebration. I would go outside and wait on the corner for Nicoli to come. I would run to him and he would throw me in the air. We would go inside and sit down and the music would begin. Often he would let me climb up and sit in his lap as he played.

Zhanna was always the first one up in the Arshansky home and this morning was no different. Moving gingerly so as not to wake her parents, she went about her daily routine. There was no time to lose. No time even to eat. The empty streets beckoned! It was a chilly November day in southern Ukraine, so Zhanna put on the white woolen suit and hat that she loved so much. Quietly closing the door and stepping outside into the sharp air, she felt a rush of excitement at the prospect of visiting the bazaar, all her favorite streets and, of course, the apothecary shop. The only thing standing between 3th-year-old Zhanna and a day of adventure was, as usual, the locked door of the front gate. She was not tall enough to open it, even on tiptoes, but had learned how to climb up and undo the heavy latch. She was not to be denied. She had places to go and things to do!

I spent a tremendous amount of time by myself because nobody could stand my company. I had to go where I had to go. I had to see what I had to see. I was born busy-eaten up by curiosity. Nothing could stop me. I was part of the environment and I was sure it couldn't be any other way. The place was made for me, it was mine. I was kind of occupying the city.

Standing on the corner, a tiny bundle of white wool with stubby legs, Zhanna considered her options for the day. There was never enough time to go all the places she wanted to go, to see all the things she wanted to see. The bazaar, the beaches, the churches, the shops, the hospital, the cemetery on a high hill overlooking the city. If her mind and senses had a mecca to which they always turned it was the apothecary where she admired the array of medicine bottles and was mesmerized by the pharmacists plying their mysterious art.

I would try to look in the windows, but they were too tall, so I would walk up the steps and get closer where I could see the people working, mixing things. I adored the little containers. I would go home and find bottles and pretend to do chemistry and make up colors. That was my play. I never played with dolls. I didn't know what to do with a doll.

Berdyansk was Zhanna's only toy, a personal amusement park where she never had to wait in line. It was a cloistered resort town on the Sea of Azov, a shallow body of sapphire water connected by the narrow Kerch Strait to the vast Black Sea to the south. It was a place of small houses on quiet, shaded streets, of merchants and fishermen and horse-drawn carriages. There were no cars and few bicycles. Zhanna never saw a plane in the sky. Summertime tourists arrived by train or boat, lured by miles of sandy beaches and the famous mud-cure therapy. The loudest sounds were the clip-clop of horses' hooves on cobblestone, the hum of the bazaar, and occasional cheers from a soccer game.

It was so quiet. I sat on the beach inspecting shells, listening to the transparent waves rolling in and out, producing their calming splash, arriving and returning to the sea. The town was the description of peace itself. I could feel it in my small bones.

In the late 1920s, Berdyansk was a place where a child could safely walk the streets alone-though sometimes at the end of the day an amused Zhanna would be carried home in the arms of a fretful policeman and handed over to her chagrined parents, who searched in vain for a cure to her raging wanderlust.

Situated along the approximate longitude of Turkey and Egypt, the region had a kaleidoscopic history, each twist of fate producing new and colorful-often exotic-cultural and political patterns, starting before Christ with the Scythians and Sarmatians and proceeding to successive reigns by the Slavs, the Golden Horde of Genghis Kahn, the Cossacks, and finally the Russians. In perhaps the most antic chapter, a group led by Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Makhno established an anarchist society in an area of Ukraine that included Berdyansk from late 1918 to June 1919.

Founded in 1827 as the outgrowth of a fishing settlement, Berdyansk was perched on a small peninsula with a wide sand bar that reached five miles into the Azov, beckoning visitors and providing a hospitable home for marine life. Fed by the Don and Kuban rivers, the warm, shallow waters of the Azov were a fisherman's paradise, teeming with sturgeon, perch, bream, mullet, herring, sardines, and anchovies-the stuff of many meals in the Arshansky home. The town grew apace with the busy seaport which shipped tons of wheat from local Mennonite and German communities. Mirroring the eclectic parade of rulers and influences, the city was born Kutur-Ogly and later renamed Novo-Nogaisk before becoming Berdyansk in 1842.

Zhanna's favorite time was summer, when Berdyansk was in full bloom and the sea was warm and the days deliciously long. She hit the streets at dawn, wearing only a skimpy bathing suit or panties and no shoes, and was swept along by her senses.

In early morning you could expect each flower to exude the most potent smell: acacia, roses, lily of the valley. Night flowers, morning flowers-the most marvelous aromas. I would go to the bazaar before the sun was completely up. People would bring magnificent things to sell. The best yogurt, with a beautiful brown crust on top, eggs and cream and butter, gorgeous, aromatic fruit-pears so big they had to be cut in a bowl to catch the delicious juice-roasted sunflower seeds, fish caught in the Sea of Azov that very day.

Tourists bought strings of smoked and sun-dried fish and bubliki-bagels-and wore them around their necks as they strolled through the market. Zhanna mingled easily with the visitors and always had an eye and ear open for new adventures. Once on a panties-only day she encountered a funeral procession-a horse-drawn wagon bearing a coffin, Orthodox priests in golden robes swinging lanterns, and a small band playing a funeral march. Zhanna was transfixed. The music called to her. She had to join the procession. At the church the mourners invited her-barefoot and half-dressed-to sit with them inside. It was the first time she had seen the interior of a church or synagogue.

They were all dressed and I was just in panties. How tolerant they were to let me be present at their most sacred of times. Every speck of the church was gilded, lavish. There were icons everywhere and mosaic windows. It was so gorgeous. I felt like I was already in heaven.

After that, she could never resist the funeral dirge. It was her Siren song. She had to fall in line. For a Jew whose family never went to synagogue, Zhanna spent a lot of time in church, tagging along to every funeral she could.

The music was the magnet. It was the same funeral march, the one for all the common people. It broke my heart every time. I would get the biggest tears and would walk with the family, crying for their relatives. I was absolutely obliged to go.

Like her independence, Zhanna's curiosity knew no bounds and she was not squeamish. If she wasn't in church mourning the dead, she might be at the hospital with the nearly dead.

I would see a person being taken in a horse cart to the hospital, head hanging off the cart. I couldn't tell if he was dead or alive, so my planned destination that day would be changed to follow the cart to the hospital to see if he was dead. For some reason I had to know. Had to know ... had to go ... had to see.

Little Zhanna lived life in the imperative mood. She was a cheeky child with a round face and plump brown cheeks, an inveterate teaser, and a tester of limits.

My grandmother was a person of limitless patience. One day she and I were the only ones at home. We were sitting at the long kitchen table where my father made candy and where we ate meals and played cards. Grandmother was knitting and talking with me. I decided to test her patience and tolerance. I picked up a very heavy brass mortar and pestle and started beating them together to see how long she could stand it. But it was I who had to give up when I lost my power. She kept knitting as though there was peace and quiet, almost as though she knew exactly what I was trying to do-exasperate her.

Zhanna rejected peace and quiet the way nature abhors a vacuum. She was instinctively drawn to-challenged and goaded by-the locked gate, the high window, the blind alley ... and the word no. When her mother, Sara, was pregnant with her, she read the Russian translation of Mark Twain's Joan of Arc and decided that if the baby was a girl she would be named for the book's courageous and defiant heroine. "Zhanna" was the closest Russian equivalent to Joan. On the day Zhanna was born in 1927, her mother could not know that the name she chose was eerily prophetic-that Zhanna, like her namesake who was burned at the stake for heresy, one day would be called to face an enemy that used incineration as a tool of war.

But such horrors were unimaginable on a chilly autumn morning in 1930 as Zhanna Arshanskaya stood alone on the street corner, exhilarated by her freedom-the world at her tiny feet. Who knew what discoveries and delights lay ahead that day? She glanced down the street in the direction of the Orthodox church, then the other way toward the bazaar, the shops, and the beaches. It was a tantalizing choice, but in the next moment she knew her destination.

I must go to the apothecary!

Zhanna turned right and headed down the street with her short but purposeful stride, a ball of white wool bouncing across the cobblestones. The thought of the apothecary and its many wonders made her happy. And when she returned home tonight, Nicoli would be there! Life could not be sweeter.

Chapter Two

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Russia was home to approximately five million Jews, the greatest concentration in the world, but they were Russians first, as Polish Jews were Poles first, and as the fealty of German Jews was to Germany. The casting aside of separate national identities for a universal Jewish solidarity tied to resurrection of an ancient homeland-that tectonic shift belonged to an unimaginable future. In the 1890's, Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who was executed by Nazis in a Latvian ghetto in 1941, lamented the benumbed memory of Russian Jews.

"Only in our midst, among the Jews of Poland and Russia, has there been kindled no desire to uncover the secrets of our past, to know what we were, how we came to our present circumstances and how our forefathers lived during the eight hundred years beginning with the start of Jewish life in Poland. There are times when I suspect in my heart that we altogether lack historical feeling-as if we were likes gypsies whose lives are entirely in the present and who have neither a future nor a past."

This was a fair description of the Arshanskys, who were Jewish by birth and culture, not by religious belief or practice. They At the dawn of the twentieth century, Russia was home to approximately five million Jews, the greatest concentration in the world, but they were Russians first, as Polish Jews were Poles first, and as the fealty of German Jews was to Germany. The casting aside of separate national identities for a universal Jewish solidarity tied to resurrection of an ancient homeland-that tectonic shift belonged to an unimaginable future. In the 1890's, Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who was executed by Nazis in a Latvian ghetto in 1941, lamented the benumbed memory of Russian Jews.

"Only in our midst, among the Jews of Poland and Russia, has there been kindled no desire to uncover the secrets of our past, to know what we were, how we came to our present circumstances and how our forefathers lived during the eight hundred years beginning with the start of Jewish life in Poland. There are times when I suspect in my heart that we altogether lack historical feeling-as if we were likes gypsies whose lives are entirely in the present and who have neither a future nor a past."

This was a fair description of the Arshanskys, who were Jewish by birth and culture, not by religious belief or practice. They did not attend synagogue-or any other house of worship-and there was no mention in the home of Judaism or Zionism or Palestine. There were a few traces of Jewish heritage. Dmitri and Sara sprinkled their Russian with Yiddish, and Zhanna recalls rueful references to pogroms, though their awful import was never fully explained by her parents.

The first major spasm of pogroms occurred in southern Russia in 1881 after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, for which the Jews were wrongly blamed. In more than 200 towns, Jews were killed and injured and their homes destroyed. A second wave from 1903 to 1906 killed 2,000 Jews, a paroxysm that became a frenzy during the revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War that followed when tens of thousands of Jews across Russia were slaughtered. One effect of the pogroms was to drive Jews away from their vulnerable hinterland shtetls to the relative safety of cities with new industry and more ethnically and culturally diverse populations. Cities provided "secular" Jews like the Arshanskys the opportunity to assimilate so seamlessly that they became indistinguishable from ethnic Russians.

Music took the place of religion in Dmitri Arshansky's home. Paganini was his god and his bible was a book with a photo of the great violinist and composer playing his instrument. A self-taught violinist, Dmitri studied the photo for hours with the grave devotion of a Talmudic scholar, holding his fiddle under his chin and attempting to mimic the master's hand positions. Observing her father in deep concentration, Zhanna silently rooted for a miracle.

I somehow knew that my father was not the number one violinist on the Earth, and so if he could improve it would be good. People said it was not human to play the way Paganini did, and my father believed it must be in the way he held the violin. I was hoping that one day he would find Paganini's secret. We had the picture on the table forever. No one was allowed to close the book.

Dmitri never heard Paganini-phonographs were rare amenities in Ukrainian homes-nor did he dare perform any of his compositions. To butcher the music of his god would have been a sacrilege. Though he was no Paganini, Dmitri played well enough to provide music at family weddings and to be part of a small ensemble that supplied the soundtrack for silent American movies shown at an outdoor theater in Berdyansk. And there were the almost nightly "concerts" with Nicoli in the Arshansky living room before an enthusiastic, though sleepy, audience of one.

If Paganini was god, and the book with his photo was the bible, the altar in Dmitri's church of music was the piano, which occupied center stage in the cramped living room. It was an upright model with an unusual feature: a mirror behind the music stand. Dmitri ordered the piano from Germany. He believed that Germans made the finest pianos; but it was not just their craftsmanship he admired, it was their culture and their adoration of music which he shared. After all, such a culture had produced Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. During World War I when Germans peacefully occupied Poltava in Ukraine, young Dmitri made friends with Yiddish-speaking German soldiers who sought out Jews for conversation. It left him with an enduring image of Germans as polite and cultured, kindred spirits.

(Continues...)