Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Like a Dickens Novel Came to Life

Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival 1941-1946 (New York: Pegasus, 2009), by Greg Dawson.

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.

Hiding in the Spotlight tells the story of how Zhanna and Frina survived the mass execution of more than 15,000 Jews at Drobitsky Yar in December 1941, when their parents and grandparents were murdered; how they went on to become, of all things, German-sponsored entertainers living in Berlin, literally next door to the Nazis who had marked them and all "their kind" for death; and how, eventually, they became scholarship students at the Julliard School in New York after the War was over.

The Nazi regime murdered nearly 6 million Jews. This is the story of two Jewish girls who survived not in a camp or a cellar, but in the spotlight. Riveting stuff.

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