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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Story of Child Prodigy Turned Holocaust Survivor Absolutely Unforgettable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Few children stand out more than musical prodigies. Today, all it takes is a nod from Simon Cowell, a little help from YouTube and voila! Overnight stardom. Back before the Internet, before Simon became a household name, even before televisions invaded every home, people were fascinated by child prodigies. Hiding in the Spotlight by journalist Greg Dawson tells the story of one such child, a small girl whose popularity nearly cost her her life.

Dawson's book chronicles the life of his mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson. A precocious child, full of curiosity and wanderlust, Zhanna delighted in exploring her hometown of Berdyansk, Ukraine. She would often set out in just her underwear, bound for the market or the apothecary shop or any other destination that captured her fancy. Hoping to "rein in his little truant" (27), Zhanna's father forced her to take piano lessons. Although she loved music, the young wanderer had no desire to sit still and learn to play. After all, her father and his musician friends would play for her whenever she wanted. Besides, hours spent practicing scales were hours she couldn't spend roaming freely around the city.
In spite of herself, Zhanna proved to be an enormously talented pianist. She mastered difficult pieces with the ease of a much more experienced student. The music came naturally - and beautifully. Everyone was impressed. Zhanna's younger sister, a much more serious student, also played well. Together, Zhanna and Frina attracted the attention of the area's musical elite. They were performing often, winning competitions, and becoming quite well known. They even won scholarships to the elite Moscow State Conservatory. If things had been different, if the family had had more money, both girls would have been safely ensconced at Moscow State Conservatory when Hitler invaded Ukraine. But things were as they always had been - the Arshanskayas had little money; even with the girls' scholarships, they could not afford to move to Moscow. So, they were still in Kharkov on June 22, 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Nothing would ever be the same - the Arshanskys were Jews.
On a cold December day, the Arshanskys were forced to leave Kharkov, along with the rest of the Jewish population. Although the people believed they were heading for a labor camp, they were really trudging toward a much crueler fate - death and mass burial at Drobitsky Yar. Narrowly escaping that end, Zhanna slipped back into the city, determined to survive. Passing herself off as a Gentile, she hid with sympathetic families, found food where she could and kept her fingers far from piano keys, lest her skill betray her. When her talents could no longer be masked, she was forced into the riskiest performances of her life - concerts for crowds of Nazi soldiers. If just one person recognized her, if just one person betrayed her as a Jew, she could be shot on sight. Hiding in the Spotlight is the story of a young girl, the determination that guided her and the music that saved her.
Dawson's passion for his subject shines through this excellent memoir. He brings to life the beautiful, courageous woman who is his mother and tells her story with honesty, even humor. In many ways, her story is unique - even atypical - from those of other Holocaust survivors, but it is no less harrowing, no less horrible. Hers is a tale of narrow misses, of near deaths, and of meager survival. What makes it most haunting is the juxtaposition of the ugliness of Zhanna's experience - the fear, the sorrow, the loss - against the beauty of her music. It's a beauty even the Nazis recognized, prizing the loveliness of Bach and Beethoven even as they exacted the most gruesome genocide in recent history. As in all survival stories, what lingers here, what truly inspires is the triumph of the human spirit over the worst kind of atrocities. From the first chapters of Hiding in the Spotlight when Zhanna steps out into the world in just her underpants, we know she's special. The rest of her story only confirms that fact. It also confirms another fact: Zhanna's story is powerful, compelling and absolutely unforgettable.
Grade: A
(Note: If you want to read more about Zhanna, check out this article from The Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Hiding in the Spotlight website.)


  1. Putting on hold RIGHT now. Sounds incredible. Thanks!

  2. That sounds fascinating. Wow.

  3. Basically just saying the same as everyone else. WOW.

  4. Thanks for the great review. I hadn't heard of this book so I appreciate that you read it and recommend it. I'm going to check and see if my library has a copy.

  5. Sounds really really fascinating. Reminds me a little of The Pianist, but really wow. Thanks for bring this one to my attention!


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