by Phil Jason
Hiding in the Spotlight, by Greg Dawson. Pegasus Books. 296 pages. $25 hardcover, $15.95 paperback.
Though this book has been out for a couple of years, it deserves a larger readership than it has so far gained. It has all the ingredients of a compelling story: hardship, near catastrophe, ingenuity, perseverance, commitment, and good fortune. Its subtitle, “A Musical Prodigy’s Story of Survival, 1941-1946,” only hints at the tension in this amazing Holocaust narrative. The subject of Hiding in the Spotlight is Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, born in Ukraine in 1927 into an essentially secular Jewish family. The author is her son.
Early in their lives, Zhanna and her younger sister, Frina, were discovered by their father Dmitri, himself a musician, to have promising abilities. He managed to obtain for them all of the training available in their small town, then moved the family to the metropolis of Kharkov where the girls excelled at the prestigious Kharkov Conservatory. The prodigious young pianists were celebrities. Though Ukrainian anti-Semitism surrounded them, it had no pronounced effect on their lives until further inflamed by the Nazi infection that would soon emerge. As WWII exploded, Hitler’s purge of the Jews in the Ukraine put the family on the run. Though Dmitri could not save himself, his parents or his wife, he did managed an escape for his daughters through bribery.
Now young adolescents, Zhanna and Frina take new (non-Jewish) identities as Anna and Marina Morozova and look to be sheltered in an orphanage. They maintain a simple, but effective, cover story about their parentage and circumstances.
In bringing his story to this point, Greg Dawson skillfully sets the narrative of his mother’s memories against a tapestry of history, particularly the shifting borders and alliances of Eastern Europe during the early 20th century. Once Zhanna’s story falls within the story of Hitler’s confrontation with Russia and its largest sister Soviet Republic (Ukraine), Mr. Dawson’s balancing act becomes more difficult. He keeps the story of his mother and aunt in the sharpest focus. The two young ladies are wanderers in a war-torn environment. Shelter, clothing, sustenance are their needs, as well as maintaining the secrecy of their new identities.
By chance, a Nazi officer happens to hear Zhanna playing Chopin in the town where his battalion is stationed. Before long, she and Frina join a troop of performers charged with entertaining Nazi soldiers. Later, they perform at labor camps. They are immensely popular, but always fearful. They are, indeed, “Hidden in the Spotlight.” This part of Zhanna’s story goes on, with many ups and downs, for five years until war’s end. The horrifying details are difficult reading, but very effectively presented.
After the formal resolutions of WWII, a major effort is made to resettle, possibly repatriate, refugees. Involved in these efforts is a man named Larry Dawson, an American who saw no combat but managed to find a way of helping his country and the war’s victims by working with refugees in Europe. It is with Larry Dawson’s over-the-top commitment to help the sisters find a new footing in life and, especially, to help them resume their piano studies, that their lives take on a new direction.
Though Zhanna had dreams of returning to Kharkov, Frina did not. Soon enough, Zhanna realized that her idealized vision of a life “back home” after the war was impossible. Under Larry’s spell, they allowed themselves to be sent to live with his family in rural Virginia and awaited Larry’s own return from his duties.
Upon that return, Larry was quick to act on his obsessional interest in the girls’ careers. His efforts led to them being accepted first at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and then at Juilliard in New York – his ultimate goal. Along the way, a relationship developed between Zhanna and Larry’s younger brother, David Dawson. David was, of all things, a successful professional musician and Juilliard alumnus. In time, Zhanna became his wife.
Both sisters had careers as performers and as teachers in university music departments. Though for decades they did not speak of their experiences before and during the war, not even to one another, the time came when Zhanna was ready to open up. Fortunately, she had a professional writer in the family, her son Greg, to whom she could tell the tale.
This review appears in the April 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee). Greg Dawson lives in Orlando, FL.