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Hiding In Spotlight, Jewish Pianist Survived WWII

Sep 12, 2009 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Growing up, Greg Dawson may not have known much about his mother's past, but he did know she was special. Unlike the other mothers in the small town of Bloomington, Ind., Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson spoke Russian and English — and she played the piano beautifully for hours each day.

What Greg Dawson didn't know at the time was that his mother had used her piano skills to survive the horrors of World War II — a story he recounts in his new book, Hiding in the Spotlight.

"I knew in a vague sense that she had been through the war, but I really knew nothing about the story that's outlined in the book," he tells Scott Simon.

The story he didn't know is an extraordinary one: When his mother was 14 years old, she and her family were rounded up by German forces where they lived in the Ukraine. As they were being marched off on the way to be executed, her father bribed a Ukrainian guard to look the other way while his two daughters ran into the forest.

Changing their names to avoid capture, the girls found refuge in an orphanage and solace in a tiny, out-of-tune piano that was stored there. One day, a piano tuner showed up, and the orphanage director asked Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson to play the instrument to prove that it had been tuned.

"So I sat down and I played and [the tuner] didn't say anything," she says. "So I played some more. And he said, 'What's going on? ... You can play piano as nobody else plays piano here in our town. ... You can go right away and live better!' "

The piano tuner helped Zhanna and her sister get work playing at a musical theater that was frequented by German soldiers. Eventually, they also played for soldiers who were stationed in work camps. Although it was shocking to play before the very people who had hurt her most in the world, she says, "The pieces were the same. So, if the piano was good, I could handle it."

The sisters' piano playing skills helped them outlast the war — though their names are listed among those who died during the German occupation of Ukraine.

"It was presumed that nobody had escaped those death marches," Greg Dawson explains. "As far as I know, they are the only two of the 16,000 who escaped."

At the end of the war, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson moved to America to make life anew. She fell in love, attended Julliard and wound up performing and teaching music at Indiana University in Bloomington. She now lives in Atlanta.

Looking back on her life, she says: "I am beginning to think that everything is planned out. ... I think there is a God."

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