Hiding In Spotlight, Jewish Pianist Survived WWII Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson survived the Holocaust by playing piano for German soldiers. Sixty years later, her son shares her incredible story with the world in his new book, Hiding in the Spotlight.
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Hiding In Spotlight, Jewish Pianist Survived WWII

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Hiding In Spotlight, Jewish Pianist Survived WWII

Hiding In Spotlight, Jewish Pianist Survived WWII

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When Zhanna Arshanskaya was 14 years old, she and her family were rounded up by German forces where they lived in the Ukraine. Her being marched off towards mass graves to be executed. When her father Dmitri bribed a Ukrainian guard to look the other way while she ran into the forest. I don't care what you do, he told her, just live, go. She had just the clothes she was wearing and a copy of Chopin's "Fantasie" Impromptu in her pocket.

Zhanna Arshanskaya was a piano prodigy at the age of six. The story of how she and sister, Frina, survived the war by playing piano for German soldiers is told by her son Greg Dawson in his new book, "Hiding in the Spotlight." Greg Dawson, who is also a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel and Zhanna Arshanskaya join us from the studios of WABE in Atlanta. Thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. GREG DAWSON (Columnist, Orlando Sentinel): Thank you Scott. It's - it's a pleasure to be here.

Ms. ZHANNA ARSHANSKAYA DAWSON (Pianist): It's very exciting.

SIMON: Mr. Dawson, I gather you grew up in Bloomington, Indiana without knowing your mother's extraordinary story.

Mr. DAWSON: That's correct. I knew growing up that my mother was different from the other moms in the neighborhood. She was Russian. Yeah, she spoke Russian and English to me. She - she practiced piano for several hours a day. And I also know in a vague sense that she had been through the war.

But I really knew nothing about the - really about the story that's outlined in the book until essentially I was 30 years old when NBC showed the Holocaust mini series. And so I thought I would call my mother who was then living in Milwaukee to see if I could get a few anecdotes or something that might relate from her fore history that might relate in some way to this mini series.

SIMON: Zhanna, if I may call you Zhanna because…

Ms. DAWSON: Yes please, please.

SIMON: …how you refer to in the book. Why didn't you tell your son?

Ms. DAWSON: I thought about it all the time. But I didn't dare because I just didn't know how I can burden them with such horror at gentle age.

SIMON: I - I'm of course going to have to get you with your son's help to tell this extraordinary story. There you were, you got caught up or pretended to get up in fence, so that the group of people who had been taken - taken off for execution, which included your father walked past. Do you essentially assume the new identity, Anna Morozova?

Ms. DAWSON: Morozova.

SIMON: Well thank you.

Ms. DAWSON: Morozova.

SIMON: I don't believe I have ever asked a question that is anything like this before. But, Zhanna, how did you and your sister come to perform for Nazi soldiers?

Ms. DAWSON: We did it all the time. The Germans had a sort of a place to live. I would say, like the distance of couple of blocks from the orphanage that we found. And we were hiding with false names. And the orphanage was filthy. It was very hungry and very awful, but we thought it was the best place. And we really didn't care about food or cleanliness. When you're in this condition and people come - there was a piano…

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAWSON: …so we sit down and play and since nobody was around, we were safe, we thought. But the piano tuner came and that the director said to me - I mean the head of the orphanage told me - look, I'm paying this guy money, but I don't want to pay him until he finishes the job and you try the piano. If this is satisfactory, I'll give him his pay, not or not?

So I sat down and I played and he just didn't say anything. He said some more, please. So, I played some more. He said what's going on. I've being tuning and watching you, you have no food, you have little babies, you have dirt, why are you here? He said this is ridiculous, you can play piano as nobody else play piano like this in our town here in (unintelligible). Why you can go right away and live better.

And we felt, oh, no, we like it here and everything. He said, I'm not leaving it alone. I'm coming back and we were terrified that he came back. And he came back again. And so Frina and I, we decided is that is time for us to agree to go into town with him. And he came and took us there. And took us right into the music school with a wonderful director. The director of music school was a friend of the director of the theater, which was holding shows for soldiers, everyday. I mean, most of the days of the week and they needed a pianist. So…

SIMON: They'd get ballet dancers.

Ms. DAWSON: For, yes.

SIMON: Who needed - who needed to practice and they needed music…

Ms. DAWSON: Yeah.

SIMON: …right.

Ms. DAWSON: Exactly. I mean you really cannot dance without music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAWSON: So, the director hired me right away. I had to play for them early in the morning. I would go and start playing for the ballet, and then all the rehearsals with singers, with other instrumentalists or jugglers. They wanted music too, you know. And so, I was busy all day but I didn't care. It was all right with me, you know, playing and everything. But…

SIMON: But you'd look into the audience and you'd see German soldiers.

Ms. DAWSON: Oh, yes. I knew they were there.

SIMON: The people who must have scared you most in the world.

Ms. DAWSON: You know, who scared me more…

SIMON: Hell, they still scare some of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAWSON: No. Let me tell you who would scare you more?

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. DAWSON: If you had a false name and if you knew that many people can recognize you, those are the people that would scare you. So if it was your right playing for Germans was like a different, but the pieces were same that I played. So, if the piano was good I could handle it.

SIMON: Zhanna, how - how did - how did you come to perform in labor camps?

Ms. DAWSON: Oh, because that was in Germany. Because there were labor camp -camps called OST, you know, in German language, it's east. And the Germans who were organizing concerts for German Army now were sending us to these OST workers. Everyday we would be playing for a different OST camp. That's what the German's did. I guess all the army's always trying to mitigate the life of a soldier. And if you have music and dance, it's entertaining.

SIMON: Greg Dawson?

Mr. DAWSON: Yes. The names of - this is extraordinary. The name of your mother and her sister are inscribed in the list of the dead of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.

Ms. DAWSON: Right.

Mr. DAWSON: Yes they're still - yes, they are still listed among the dead at Yad Vashem and their names are also etched into the wall, a memorial outside (unintelligible) where 16,000 Jews were murdered including her parents and grandparents. And that's because it was presumed that nobody had escaped those death marches. And as far as I know, they're only two of 16,000 who escaped.

SIMON: Zhanna, you and your sister came to the United States after the war. You wound up going to Julliard, you wound up performing and teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Ms. DAWSON: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: What an amazing arc in your life? What an amazing life?

Ms. DAWSON: Yes there's, what kind of a plan there, did that to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAWSON: You know, now I go to synagogue and I have wonderful rabbis there. And I begin to think that everything is planned out. Because a Soviet Russian person who never saw a rabbi or synagogue that is not part of being Soviet Russian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAWSON: But by going there almost a year now I really truly - I know that the world had to be made by somebody. Yes, I think…

SIMON: Zhanna?

Ms. DAWSON: Yes, I think there is one God, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You know, Zhanna I guess we have a recording of you playing at that we're going to - that we're going to play…

Ms. DAWSON: Yeah. Yes, how wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well - but well what are we going to here?

Ms. DAWSON: It's a quintet - piano quintet by Schumann. He brought only one and it has four moments and it's the third moment of it that is written for the brilliance of a piano.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: So, nice talking to both of you. Thanks so much.

Mr. DAWSON: Thank you, Scott.

Ms. DAWSON: Thank you, it was wonderful and goodbye.

SIMON: Goodbye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Zhanna Dawson who was a piano prodigy at the age of six. The story of how she survived the war by playing piano for German soldiers as told by her son Greg Dawson in the new book, "Hiding in the Spot."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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