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

(Pegasus, 2009)

Memoirs of Holocaust and World War II survivors have especially proliferated in the last few decades, as their authors have advanced in age and have resolved to finally share their grim histories with their grown children and grandchildren. This remembrance is a unique addition to that genre. First of all, it was written by a survivor's son as a tribute to his mother. Secondly, the facts serve as testimony to the power of music, offered under even the most dire and most horrific of circumstances. It was truly their musical talents that saved two Ukrainian sisters from certain death.

Zhanna and Frina Arshanskaya were mere children living with their family in the Ukraine when the Germans arrived. Yes, they were Jewish; but to them it was more of a cultural habit than a religious one. Classical music was an integral part of their household. At an early age, the girls were taught to play -- and master -- the piano. By the time Zhanna was 10 years old and Frina was 8, they were both performing regularly in public and were on their way to studying with teachers at select music conservatories.

But Hitler and the Nazis had another schedule in mind for that part of the world and for the Jewish Ukrainians in particular. Through the intervention of their father and a variety of guardian angels, the sisters somehow escaped during the death march to Drobitsky Yar. Suddenly they were orphans, aged 14 and 12, who were in a daily struggle just to find food and shelter and to avoid recapture by the Germans.

Eventually by taking on non-Jewish identities -- Anna and Marina Morozova -- they were able to "pass" and were even called upon to play impromptu and formal concerts. Always lurking in the near background was the fear that someone from back home would hear them play and would unveil the girls' true identity. "A careless remark to the wrong person at the camp could find its way back to Berlin where the authorities might decide the two Jewish impostors had outlived their usefulness and should join their ilk at Auschwitz." Things got worse before they could get better. But you have to follow the girls' experiences for yourself to learn their incredible story and how they eventually crossed the Atlantic. Then they had the auditioning processes of the premier music schools in America to contend with.

Greg Dawson reveals the details in chronological you-were-there fashion, intertwined with snippets from contemporary interviews from his mother, Zhanna. He has obviously taken on this project in the spirit of his love and admiration for her. While his writing is suspenseful, we readers can be fairly certain that Zhanna at the very least must have gotten out of central Europe alive, since this book was written by her son. And she posed with him for the author's photo on the back flap of the dust jacket. Even so, there are sections in the book where the reader may have doubts and may wonder how anyone could have lived through such conditions. It's an illustration of one of the most tragic chapters in world history. Man's inhumanity to man can be beyond belief.

Hiding in the Spotlight is a compelling narrative that deserves wide readership. Even non-musicians or readers apart from The Greatest Generation will be thunderstruck by this true tale. It is the kind of book that makes you shake your head as you read it. Any difficulties you may have had in your own life pale in comparison to what these two women (and thousands of others) suffered through. Kudos to Greg Dawson for putting this story down on paper and for sharing it with the rest of us. And congratulations to Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson and Frina Arshanskaya Bolt for being heroines and role models for us all.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Corinne H. Smith

14 November 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new