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Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946 Hardcover – June 27, 2009

4.8 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this remarkable recreation of the WWII years, Dawson, a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel, writes about his mother, pianist Zhanna Arkashyna in an account reminiscent of Wladyslaw Szpilman's The Pianist. As a child in the Ukraine, Zhanna was offered a scholarship to the Moscow State Conservatory. Her life changed in 1941 when Nazis grouped her Jewish family with thousands to be executed; Zhanna and her sister, Frina, escaped to roam the countryside as fugitives, hiding and surviving. With a new name and a non-Jewish identity, Zhanna performed for unsuspecting Nazis. Arriving in New York in 1946, the sisters enrolled at Juilliard on scholarships. Zhanna married violist David Dawson, and the couple moved in 1948 to Bloomington, Ind., joining the music faculty at Indiana University. To research his mother's homeland, Dawson traveled to Ukraine, including Dorbitsky Yar, where 15,000 Jews were murdered, among them Zhanna and Frina's parents. On a memorial listing the dead, Dawson was shocked to find his mother's name: I had come that close to nonexistence. With italicized selections from his mother's own writing, Dawson skillfully weaves the story of her life and music into a vibrant tapestry, tattered and torn, yet triumphant. (July)
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Summoning all the colors of a Chopin prelude, Greg Dawson has painted a vivid picture of his mother from her fairy tale childhood in the Ukraine to her final escape from the Nazis and her triumphant voyage to America. A wonderful, staggering achievement. — Mona Golabek, Grammy-nominated pianist and host of The Romantic Hours

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus; 1St Edition edition (June 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1605980455
  • ISBN-13: 978-1605980454
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #775,960 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Hiding in the Spotlight tells the true story of two young Jewish sisters from the Ukraine. When their family is removed from its home and sent on a Nazi death march in the winter of 1941, piano prodigies Zhanna and Frina Arshankaya are spared through an exchange brokered by their father and a Ukrainian guard: the two girls are allowed to escape for their father's pocket watch. Left without family, Zhanna and Frina reinvented themselves as orphans of a Red Army soldier and joined a troupe of entertainers. The sisters survived the war by performing for German soldiers and officers and living in constant fear of discovery of their Jewish ancestry.

After the war, Zhanna and Frina were liberated but homeless. They were sent to a displaced persons camp near Munich where they avoided boredom by staging shows on a "bare stage" and a "creaky piano." The camp's American director, recognizing the sister's prodigious musical talent, committed to adopt the sisters. He sent them to safety in America, where Zhanna and Frina struggled to adapt to a new language, culture, and family on a farm in Virginia.

Perhaps due to his forty years as a journalist, Dawson writes this story with a keen eye for historical accuracy and describes the horrors inflicted by the Nazis in vivid detail. But the narrative is not without a personal connection. Dawson is Zhanna's son, and this link gives him great access to the emotional side of the story. My only wish is that Dawson had continued the story beyond 1946 to cover the sisters' new life in America. I may be a bit biased, however, because the camp director who adopted the sisters, Larry Dawson, was my grandfather. And the grand piano I learned to play during summers spent with my grandmother on her farm in Virginia is the same piano that greeted Zhanna and Frina on their first night in America.
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Format: Hardcover
I've enjoyed reading Greg Dawson's columns in the Orlando Sentinel for years, so I was delighted to hear that he'd written a book. But when I learned the topic, I wondered: How would a writer whose trademark is irreverent humor and puns that make you groan handle telling the story of a Holocaust survivor? Now that I've read the book, I can tell you that he did it with skill, grace, and love.

Hiding in the Spotlight is the story of Dawson's mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who was born in Berdyansk, Ukraine, and was able to escape the Holocaust death camps thanks to the sacrificial love of her father and the amazing heart of many people along the way who were willing to risk their own lives to save others.

Zhanna and her younger sister assumed false identities to hide the fact that they were Jewish and, because they were talented musicians, spent much of the war entertaining the Nazis. At the end of the war, they were able to reclaim their own identities and eventually came to the United States as teenagers, where Zhanna attended the Julliard School.

Greg Dawson writes that he grew up blissfully unaware of his mother's traumatic youth. He quotes his mother: "How can you tell children about such things? It would be too cruel."

But Zhanna's is a story that needs to be told and her son is the perfect person to tell it. We cannot afford to forget the horrors, the unspeakable cruelty and misery of that time, and Dawson's writing skills puts the reader right in the middle of it.

Zhanna's father's last words to her were: "I don't care what you do--just live!" She did that well, with strength, determination, and dignity.

And if the book itself doesn't move you to tears more than once, be sure to read the acknowledgements.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What a wonderful story ! A hard story, a painful story but Wonderful. I would never have known about this extraordinary woman had it not been for a chance meeting with one of her students. The former student is a 'Storyteller Extraordinaire' and my wife and I were quite sure that he was embellishing and exaggerating the story of Jana Dawson. How wrong we were. Quite a remarkable story of survival (another holocaust terror ), triumph of the human spirit, brute and stubborn determination and courage. Also, it would seem, very Honest and direct. No trumpeting or calling of a human being a haloed saint. I can't recommend it highly enough. Congratulations to her son for writing what must have been a painful and frustrating epic journey of discovering the full story of his Mother !
Superb !

david jay logan
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Format: Hardcover

Zhanna and Frina Arkashyna's story was by turns fascinating, horrifying, and ultimately inspiring. Not only did I learn a lot about the fate of Russian Jews in World War II, but also how determination, love, and just plain good fortune shape our paths in life.

Greg Dawson did an excellent job: the book is straightforward and compelling, never sliding off into glurge nor getting lost in too much background information.

After keeping it to herself most of her life, I'm so glad Zhanna was willing to share her story. Holocaust survivors' experiences need to be recorded and told. This one was done beautifully.
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This fine memoir recounts the odyssey of Zhanna Arshanskaya and her sister, Frina. A true labor of love, it was written by Greg Dawson, Zhanna's son, and a long-time columnist for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

Born in 1927, Zhanna, the author's mother, was the older of two sisters. The girls' parents were Dmitri and Sara Arshansky, non-religious Jews who were raising a young family in Berdyansk, Ukraine, a resort town on the northern coast of the Sea of Avov. Dmitri, the father, was a candy-maker by day and an amateur violinist by night. Passionate about music, he had high aspirations for his two girls. His early dreams were fulfilled.

By the time she was six years old, Zhanna, a prodigy at the piano, was occasionally playing live on local radio. One such performance revealed the level of her skill and poise. As Zhanna played at the radio station, the lights in the studio suddenly went out. But there was no break in the music. Dmitri had always insisted that his daughter not only memorize a number, but that she never so much as look at her hands when she played. Anytime she learned a new piece, her father required Zhanna to perform it with the lights out. For her, a flawless recital in the dark was nothing unusual. But with the Stalinist crack-down in the Soviet Union, followed by the Holocaust, the blissful lives of the Arshanskys were changed forever.
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