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A Haunting Memory Comes Out of Hiding

 

After learning how his mother survived the Holocaust, Sentinel columnist Greg Dawson wondered if he could do her story justice. 

Greg Dawson
Hiding in the Spotlight, a new book by Sentinel columnist
Greg Dawson, tells a story of music, horror and survival. 

Orlando Sentinel consumer columnist Greg Dawson has been a journalist for more than 42 years, but the most amazing story he’s ever written didn’t originate with a reader or a news source. It started with his mother.

She told her son about a 14-year-old girl, a musical prodigy, who was among thousands of Jews being marched to their deaths in Ukraine in January 1942. Just over a mile from the ravine where the Nazis were to murder these people, the girl’s father bribed a guard with a gold watch—persuading him to look the other way while his daughter stepped out of line and blended in with onlookers along the road.

The father’s last words to her: “I don’t care what you do. Just live!’’

Zhanna Arshansky (now Dawson) did live, to come to America, to become an acclaimed pianist and music teacher, to raise a family—and to finally tell her story to her son Greg, who is sharing it in his new book Hiding in the Spotlight (Pegasus Books).

The title refers to how Zhanna and her younger sister, Frina, who also escaped the massacre but would never discuss how she got away, spent the rest of the war hiding their identities as Jews while being forced to showcase their musical talents for the occupying Germans.

“I knew when I was growing up that she was Russian and that she had been through the war,” recalls Greg Dawson. But it wasn’t until 1978, when he was writing a column for an Indiana newspaper about NBC’s Holocaust miniseries, that he asked his mother for the details.

“For the first time she gave me the real story, with the gold watch and the escape and everything after that, and of course when I heard it I was pretty dumbfounded,’’ Dawson says.

 Over the years his wife, Candy, and friends encouraged Dawson to write a book about his mother. But he had his doubts. Zhanna wasn’t keen on telling much more. And Dawson, 59, is more at home as a columnist, not a long-form narrative writer. Sentinel readers know him as the wisecracking consumer advocate who helps make right the transgressions of shady roofers, intransigent insurance companies and stingy department stores. But telling a survival story of the Holocaust?

The key, Dawson says, was treating the project like a series of columns. Once he persuaded his mother that her story should be told, her eloquence took care of the rest. “The heart of this book is my mother’s words. They’re extremely vivid. She’s very eloquent and very passionate, too, much like her [piano] playing.’’

That passion—and her love of music, particularly Chopin—helped sustain Zhanna and her sister throughout the war, even though they were performing for the invading army that had killed their family.

“Playing that music and hearing that music, I believe, helped protect them spiritually so that they didn’t come out of the war beaten down,’’ Dawson says.

Talk to Zhanna Dawson and you know he’s right. Now living in Atlanta, the ebullient 82-year-old is all about music, commenting to her phone interviewer about a version of Carmen she just finished listening to. (“It’s too slow!’’)

“I suppose I rely on music instead of psychiatrists and psychologists,’’ says Zhanna, who doesn’t play piano anymore because of back and hand problems. “It’s all tied up with music, you know? Music is very spiritual and philosophical.’’

She thinks that more than one Nazi guard saw her escape from that line 67 years ago–but did nothing because shooting a teenage girl might have caused a riot among the marchers. Much better to let her go and shoot the rest at the ravine. It would be more efficient.

“The memories of these horrors are not getting smaller,’’ Zhanna says. “They get bigger.’’

Greg Dawson says his mother has expressed anger about what happened—but never bitterness. Ask him if Zhanna is his hero and he responds this way:

“I’d say she is now. I got to know her a lot better [while writing the book]. You know how it is when you’re a kid—when you’re really just a kid—your parents are kind of one-dimensional figures. You don’t see them as complicated human beings. But the more I heard about her experience, the less I thought I would be able to do [what she did]. I stand in awe of her experience and her ability to go through it.’’

Three years ago, Dawson decided to trace his mother’s path of survival. He traveled to Ukraine and visited, among other places, Drobitsky Yar, the ravine where his ancestors were murdered. There on a memorial wall erected in memory of the dead, he found the names of his grandparents and great-grandparents—and, shockingly, those of his mother and aunt, too. It had just been assumed they died with all the rest.

“That’s how close she came to not living,’’ Dawson says. “I think when you see something like that, it makes you think about the randomness of existence and how fleeting life is.’’

Zhanna Dawson would agree with her biographer. After all, she says, “We have a wonderful understanding of the world together.’’

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