Hiding In Spotlight, Jewish Pianist Survived WWII

Zhanna Dawson at piano i i

hide captionZhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, shown here at age 34, survived World War II by playing the piano.

Pegasus Books
Zhanna Dawson at piano

Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, shown here at age 34, survived World War II by playing the piano.

Pegasus Books
Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946
By Greg Dawson
Hardcover, 272 Pages
Pegasus Books
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt.

Growing up, Greg Dawson may not have known much about his mother's past, but he did know she was special. Unlike the other mothers in the small town of Bloomington, Ind., Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson spoke Russian and English — and she played the piano beautifully for hours each day.

What Greg Dawson didn't know at the time was that his mother had used her piano skills to survive the horrors of World War II — a story he recounts in his new book, Hiding in the Spotlight.

"I knew in a vague sense that she had been through the war, but I really knew nothing about the story that's outlined in the book," he tells Scott Simon.

The story he didn't know is an extraordinary one: When his mother was 14 years old, she and her family were rounded up by German forces where they lived in the Ukraine. As they were being marched off on the way to be executed, her father bribed a Ukrainian guard to look the other way while his two daughters ran into the forest.

Zhanna and Greg Dawson i i

hide captionGreg Dawson says that growing up, he didn't know the extent of the horrors his mother survived.

Candy Dawson
Zhanna and Greg Dawson

Greg Dawson says that growing up, he didn't know the extent of the horrors his mother survived.

Candy Dawson

Changing their names to avoid capture, the girls found refuge in an orphanage and solace in a tiny, out-of-tune piano that was stored there. One day, a piano tuner showed up, and the orphanage director asked Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson to play the instrument to prove that it had been tuned.

"So I sat down and I played and [the tuner] didn't say anything," she says. "So I played some more. And he said, 'What's going on? ... You can play piano as nobody else plays piano here in our town. ... You can go right away and live better!' "

The piano tuner helped Zhanna and her sister get work playing at a musical theater that was frequented by German soldiers. Eventually, they also played for soldiers who were stationed in work camps. Although it was shocking to play before the very people who had hurt her most in the world, she says, "The pieces were the same. So, if the piano was good, I could handle it."

The sisters' piano playing skills helped them outlast the war — though their names are listed among those who died during the German occupation of Ukraine.

"It was presumed that nobody had escaped those death marches," Greg Dawson explains. "As far as I know, they are the only two of the 16,000 who escaped."

At the end of the war, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson moved to America to make life anew. She fell in love, attended Julliard and wound up performing and teaching music at Indiana University in Bloomington. She now lives in Atlanta.

Looking back on her life, she says: "I am beginning to think that everything is planned out. ... I think there is a God."

Excerpt: 'Hiding in the Spotlight'

'Hiding in the Spotlight'
Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946
By Greg Dawson
Hardcover, 272 Pages
Pegasus Books
List Price: $25.00

With their new Anna and Marina identification papers safely in hand, Zhanna and Frina settled into life at the orphanage in the summer of 1942 and daydreamed of real liberation. !eir favorite pastime was going up to the roof and looking east for the Red Army, which they expected to arrive any day.

"I see them!" Zhanna, the eternal optimist, would cry, pointing at explosive little puffs suddenly dotting the horizon. But it was always just another stray round of German artillery, never the Red Army. Much closer to the rooftop, just two hundred miles due west of Kremenchug near the town of Vinnitsa, was Hitler himself, conducting the Eastern Front strategy from his secret headquarters, code-named Werewolf.

Zhanna and Frina took turns on an old upright piano they found in the orphanage, playing folk songs and singing with the young children. German soldiers posted nearby would hear Chopin and Schubert drifting out the window and saunter over.

The piano had never been played so much or so well. The orphanage director was inspired to have it professionally tuned, and to use Zhanna to ensure that he got his money's worth.

"Tell the tuner I will not pay him until you play the piano and say it is tuned correctly," he said.

Zhanna didn't want the job. In fact, she wished the tuner was not coming at all. She and Frina grew nervous every time a stranger visited the orphanage, fearful it might be someone who recognized them from their performing days in Kharkov. She couldn't tell the director that, and she could not refuse to test the tuner's work without making the director suspicious.

"Okay," she told him, "I can do that."

The tuner was a short, hunchbacked man with an air of intelligence and formality. His name was Misha Alexandrovich. He opened his bag of tools and for the next two hours tightened bolts, tapped strings, pumped pedals, and plunked keys. Finally satisfied, he began to pack up his tools.

Zhanna, who had been watching him work from a polite distance, approached the tuner.

"Excuse me," she said sheepishly, "but the director said I must try the piano before he pays you."

He looked at Zhanna quizzically. "You can play?"

"A little."

"With both hands?"

"Yes, with both handsand at the same time," Zhanna said archly, suppressing a grin.

"Okay then," he said, "let me hear something."

Misha took a seat and prepared to be unimpressed. What was this child going to play? "Three Blind Mice"? "Twinkle-Twinkle, Little Star"?

Zhanna sat down and raced through a C-major scale to warm up. The tuner's eyes widened. Then she played a Chopin waltz. He straightened up in his seat.

A shiver went up Zhanna's spine. The last thing she wanted was to leave the remoteness and anonymity of the orphanage for the spotlight of a music school where she and Frina would be on very public display.

"That is very flattering," she said, "but we are happy right here."

"Happy? You are starving to death here. You will be fed at the music school. You will play on a grand piano instead of this old upright. Your artistry will be appreciated. Why in the world would you not want to go?"

A person would have to be crazy not to go. There was only one reason, and it was unmentionable. The tuner shrugged his shoulders and left, but early the next morning he was back and not to be denied. They had to go, or risk being thrown in an asylum for crazy people. Reluctantly, Zhanna and Frina went with Misha to the music school in the center of town and played for the director, Professor Bulbenko, a grandmotherly figure.

She was a wonderful lady, so alive and sweet. She went wild for our playing. "You have to live here and practice! I will find a place for you!" We tried very hard to say no. But she adored music so much and was begging us to stay. And the tuner was agreeing with her. So there was nothing to do but move into new quarters.

It was a dramatic upgrade in living conditions. The school had no dormitories, so the professor put two cots in a practice room, next to the piano. There was a big window with a lovely view of the grounds. The toilet was in a wooden shed outside, but the "bedroom" was lice-free. Word of the in-house prodigies spread quickly among students and teachers at the school, bringing the girls unwanted attention, but they felt safe there. Then one day Professor Bulbenko asked a favor that filled Zhanna with silent panic.

"We have a theater where our students are required to perform for the Germans," the professor said. "There is only one piano accompanist for the singers and dancers, but she has a little baby and cannot always be there. We need your helpyou must play. We have no other concert-level pianists."

I have spent months running and hiding from the Nazis, and now you are going to put mea fugitive Jewon a stage before hundreds of German soldiers?

This is what Zhanna wanted to say — to scream — to the professor. Instead, she mustered a tight smile. "Of course," Zhanna said, "I will be happy to play."

The next day she went to meet the director of the theater.

She wore the same plain dress she wore almost every day, and the same pair of weather-beaten shoes she had worn since leaving Kharkov. Her big toe was sticking out of a hole in one shoe.

A gaggle of the young dancers and actors were loitering on the lawn outside the theater when Zhanna arrived.

They were all very well-dressed, and when they saw my toe sticking out they burst into laughter. It was not funny to me. These clothes were all I had. I was ashamed and embarrassed. It hurt me so much. I thought, "I will never forget this."

Red-faced but dry-eyed, Zhanna marched past the sneering onlookers into the theater. The director was so desperate for another pianist to accompany the dancers, singers, and other entertainers that he didn't even ask Zhanna to audition.

"I would like you to start immediately," he told Zhanna.

"What do you want me to play?"

"Everything," he said.

Zhanna laughed. "Everything"

"The professor says you are the finest musician in Kremenchug," he said. "You will be paid higher than anybody in the theater."

Maybe now I can buy some shoes, Zhanna thought. Frina was hired, too, but her salary was lower because she did not perform solo and had no experience as an accompanist. Her playing was limited to four-hand pieces with Zhanna, a skill Regina Horowitz had taught them at the Kharkov conservatory, never imagining it would someday be a tool of survival.

It gave Zhanna great satisfaction to know that she was making more than her tauntersthe dancers and singers who now depended on her for musicbut the hundreds of rubles she received were worthless since there was nothing to buy. For Zhanna, playing well was the best revenge and the director soon gave her the opportunitya solo performance.

For the occasion, Professor Bulbenko made Zhanna a kneelength dress from white silk, using her high standing to procure the rare finery amid wartime scarcity and hardship. Zhanna's dark hair was in pigtails. And she was wearing new shoes. The concert hall was packed, mostly German soldiers with a sprinkling of Italians and Viennese. The Fuhrer himself might well have slipped into the darkened hall. He was a music lovermusic was said to be his only sure source of relaxation and diversion from the warand Kremenchug was only a few hours by train from his command bunker at Werewolf. But in one respect his presence in the hall would have been a breathtaking act of hypocrisy.

A central justification of Operation Barbarosathe invasion of the Soviet Unionwas Hitler's stated belief that Russians were Untermenschensubhumansas was their culture. Hitler embraced Richard Wagner as the exemplar of racially pure German music and insisted that Jews had no original culture or art of their own. He banished them from concert halls in Germany. Yet his large private collection of recordings included the work of Jewish and Russian musicians such as Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Zhanna's hero, Rachmaninoff. Was it really surprising that the urderer of so many Jews was a hypocrite in his musical tastes, in ddition to everything else, as he was himself part Jewish?

Waiting backstage to make her entrance, Zhanna was nervous, but not about the music. She was playing a piece she had performed many timesthe Chopin Scherzo in B-flat Minor.

It was a piece I never forgot. I could sit down and play it in the middle of the night. In the beginning there is suffering and indecision. Nobody knows what the story is going to be. Immediately after the suspenseful opening, fireworks begin. Turn the page and right away the glorious Chopin melody starts, as though he wrote it for a singer, so calming in a way, so romantic and happy. It ends in fantastic victory. It's a heroic piece — electrifying.

Watching from the wings as the hall filled, Zhanna had only one fearthat she would be recognized, that someone in the audience would shout, "She's a Jew!" But even greater than that fear was the burning anger she still felt toward the singers and dancers who had mocked her. She saw them taking seats in the back of the hall.

I was still angry at being laughed at for my shoes. When I walked out to play it was going to be for them. I thought, "Let's see if you ever laugh at me again."

The house lights dimmed, the spotlight shone on the grand piano at the center of the stage. "Gentlemen," the director announced, "for your pleasure this evening, performing Chopin's Scherzo in B-flat Minor — Miss Anna Morozova!"

Zhanna entered, bowed to the audience, and settled herself at the piano. She looked down for a moment, hands in her lap. Could she summon the passion that Chopin's piece demandedfor this audience? Was it not a betrayal of her parents and grandparents?

Her heart raced. Her mind reeled backward. She was on the road to Drobitsky Yar again. Her father was placing his winter coat over her shoulders. She was looking into his eyes as he spoke his final words.

"I don't care what you do — just live!"

Ready now, reinforced by her father's spirit, Zhanna looked up, cast a final sideways glance at the soldiers, and raised her hands to the keyboard.

The soldiers listened in amazement to the big sound coming from the slender figure on stage, Zhanna's hands rising and falling in a blur, attacking — then caressing — the keys. She spread her arms as far as she could reach, to strike the climactic notes at the far ends of the keyboard.

Suffering ... indecision ... fireworks ... victory.

The hall erupted in thunderous applause, the soldiers on their feet whistling and shouting "Bravo! Bravo!" Zhanna exited the stage, but they kept bringing her back for encores. As she made her final bow, Zhanna looked past the soldiers to the stunned dancers and singers sitting motionless at the back of the hall.

Now let's see if you will ever laugh at me again.

From the book Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival by Greg Dawson. Excerpted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. Copyright 2009.

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Hiding in the Spotlight

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

by Greg Dawson

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