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A Musical Prodigy’s Story of Survival, 1941-1946

by Greg Dawson

Pub Date: July 15th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-60598-045-4
Publisher: Pegasus

The inspiring story of a Ukrainian Jewish girl trained as a pianist who performed for the Nazis to avoid capture.

The author’s mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya, did not discuss her plight with her son when he was a child living in “blissful ignorance” with his musician-teacher parents in Bloomington, Ind. Seasoned journalist Dawson, now a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, re-creates the terrifying war era by furnishing brief first-person memories in the voice of his mother that alternate with the main historical narrative, which begins with Zhanna and her younger sister, Frina, learning to play the piano at the behest of their father, Dmitri, a candy maker and violinist. As the sisters’ progressed in their musical studies, the family moved to Kharkov so that the girls could attend the city’s prestigious conservatory. But in 1941, when Zhanna was 14, “the German army moved inexorably, and murderously, across the Ukraine.” As Zhanna’s family was marching toward the killing ravines, Dmitri urged his daughter to flee: “I don’t care what you do, just live. Go!” After escaping into the countryside, Zhanna was eventually reunited with her sister. The young girls relied on strangers’ kindness and were coached to reinvent identities for themselves until their piano-playing in an orphanage caught the attention of the music school. They played for the German soldiers and then were sent as a troupe of performers to Berlin and—in a sick twist—on tour to slave-labor camps. Eventually the sisters’ musical gifts earned them passage to America and enormous later achievement, as Dawson gracefully sums up.

A patiently recounted narrative, especially informative about Nazi atrocities in Ukraine.