Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson (a review)

Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy's Story of Survival, 1941-1946
4 out of 5: 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.


Anonymous said...

What a totally amazing story! I can't wait to read the book. Did you actually know the sisters?

bermudaonion said...

Great review. I've just added this book to my wish list.

Gwen Dawson said...

I don't know the sisters, but I have met Zhanna's son a couple times at family reunions. And, of course, my grandmother (the woman who welcomed the sisters into her home in Virginia) has shared plenty of stories. It's really a fascinating story, and I'm proud of the role my grandparents played to help these talented sisters.

Zibilee said...

I think it is so very cool that you have such a personal connection to this story! I will have to get a copy of this book and let you know what I think.

Serena said...

this sounds amazing...great book for the WWII Reading challenge over at

Thanks for an excellent review.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the story about their life in America can be book 2! (I am after all Greg's literary agent)

Pinky said...

I wanted to read the book the second i saw it on the shelf. I was so determined and was I finshed I was far from disappointed! I loved ever sentence! It was well put together and I could feelmy self in the perspective of both Greg and Zhanna in her heartfelt journey. This book taught me that a second chance or blessings come in different forms and you don't even realize it's there--you just go with your instinct. Zhanna is a courageous women and self-motivated. This book is strongly recommended to all people!

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