Hiding in the Spotlight

January 28, 2011

"I don't care what you do --just live." Dmitri Arshansky

Zhanna Arshansky Dawson
United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Day has been held on January 27th every year since 2005 as a day to honor the memory of 6 million Jews and countless others who died by the hands of the Nazis in World War II.

At my high school in Orlando, we commemorated the day by hosting an extraordinary Holocaust survivor and three members of her remarkable family.  The goal was to teach the lessons of the Holocaust, and to inspire students to dedicate themselves to promoting tolerance.

I want to share this touching Holocaust story with you. It is a story that has moved everyone who has heard it.  It has inspired many to reflect on how they can use their lives to make a difference in their community and in the world.

Last September my service learning students attended a screening and panel discussion on a Global Peace Film Festival film, Hiding in the Spotlight. The film is a short documentary created by Candy Dawson.  The students were deeply moved and inspired by the message of the film and the hero's qualities of perseverance, courage, and strength that she exhibited when faced with horrible hardships.

The film is based on the book, Hiding in the Spotlight, that was written by Candy's husband, Greg Dawson, a columnist with the Orlando Sentinel. The film and book tell the incredible story of Greg's mother,  Zhanna Arshansky Dawson. She was a young Jewish musical prodigy in the Ukraine who escaped death during the Holocaust by playing the piano.

In 1941, Zhanna's family was taken from their home in Berdyansk, Ukraine by Nazis and put in a death march alongside thousands of others who were to be executed and thrown in the ravines Drobitsky Yar. Her father bribed a young German guard with a gold pocket watch, begging him to turn his eyes to let Zhanna go.  His last words to his daughter were, "I don't care what you have to do -just live."

Zhanna escaped the march into the icy forest and found her way back to her village. After a series of miracles, she was placed in an orphanage with her sister, Frina who had also escaped.  To this day Frina has told no one, not even her sister, how she got away. The two sisters were given new Christian names and identities, including new birth dates.

A piano tuner heard Zhanna playing piano, and was stunned by her talent. Soon Zhanna and Frina were performing for Nazi troops, entertaining soldiers and officers with the music of Chopin, Brahms and other composers. The two Jewish sisters were "hiding in the spotlight."

After the war, Zhanna and Frina were put in a refuge camp. The American camp administrator sponsored their move to the United States and he helped the girls win scholarships to Julliard. Zhanna married Larry Dawson, the refuge camp's brother, who was also an accomplished musician.  Both woman had successful musical careers.

Another remarkable aspect of this story is the fact that Zhanna's two sons did not learn of her story until they were adults. They knew that their mother was Russian and came to America after the war. But it wasn't until Aimee Dawson interviewed her grandmother, Zhanna as part of a high school history assignment that the family learned the story.  Zhanna wanted to spare her children from hearing the terrible story while they were young, wanting them to have a trama-free childhood, unlike her own. The word Holocaust was not even mentioned in the Dawson home.

Summarizing this story does not do it justice.  You must read the eloquently written book, Hiding in the Spotlight, to get all of the details of this story. (You can order it here.)

A full length documentary film, Sharing the Spotlight is being produced to tell the story of Zhanna and the influence it has had on students and others.  My students were filmed yesterday to be part of the documentary. All of them have read the book (most more than once, because they love it so much). While they were excited to be part of the film, they were much more excited to be able to meet their inspirational hero, Zhanna, and to have the opportunity to interact with the Dawson family.

Over 800 students and faculty members, about one quarter of the high school's total student body of 3,200, attended a presentation in the school auditorium where Candy Dawson's beautifully filmed documentary was presented. Then the four Dawsons - Zhanna, Greg, Candy and Aimee held a panel discussion and took questions from students. Every member of this family is exceptional as individuals, but together they are intensely uplifting and enlightening. The family received standing ovations when they walked on stage and when the presentation ended. 

Dozens of students, who usually leave the campus when the last bell rings, stayed in the auditorium and ran on the stage to greet Zhanna and the family. I am sure it was an exhausting day for her, but Zhanna graciously embraced and spoke to each and every child, listened to their remarks, accepted their praise, and responded to their own stories for almost two hours after the program ended. As one student remarked, "This is United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Day and of all the schools in our country, we were blessed to have the Dawsons visit. I will never forget this day!"

Visit the Hiding in the Spotlight website to hear Zhanna play the piano, see photos, and learn more.

Aimee and Zhanna Dawson on stage after the presentation.

Fourth year service learning student, Chelsea fields questions from the audience for the Dawsons.

Film crew in my classroom filming service learning students for the documentary, Sharing in the Spotlight.
Greg Dawson signing a book.
Students speak to Zhanna and the Dawsons on stage after the program.


Anonymous said...

Go Israel and may God bless all the Jews around the world.

The VAST majority of the Muslim world condemns Israel and calls for the extermination of Jews everywhere. You cannot deny this, yet surprisingly you defend Islam and Sharia Law. That's right, if you support Islam you MUST support Sharia Law.

You are a fighter for women's rights yet you support Islam. You do know that women under Islam are considered less than human? In Indonesia for example, Muslim women are basically breeding vessels for their men.

"We plan to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion. We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem."
Yasser Arafat

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this! I look forward to reading the book.

Wendy said...

Anonymous 3:10

I think you missed the point of this post or I was not clear because I was so intent on sharing Zhanna's story. The post was written to promote tolerance, unity and the acceptance of others. That is the message of the UN Holocaust Day of Remembrance and of Zhanna and her family. It is important to remember the Holocaust and the victims, and to realize that every person has a responsibility to protect the basic human rights of others.

We must not stand by when we witness individual, and especially government-endorsed, hatred and propaganda. We have a responsibility to eliminate hatred, replacing it with understanding, acceptance and unity. We cannot silently stand by and ignore genocide anywhere in the world (Rwanda, Bosnia,or anywhere) just because it is not in our backyard. Every person has a responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable, disenfranchised or oppressed. We have a duty to be the voice for the voiceless. We have a responsibility to educate and prevent future atrocities and needless suffering. We have a responsibility to bring those who commit crimes against humanity to justice.

The lessons of the Holocaust are not reserved for those of the Jewish faith. Sadly, the world stood silently as similar events occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere. We see hatred against the foreign workers expressed daily and they have been and are still sanctioned and promoted by the CNMI government, by the state of Arizona and others. It is not acceptable.

I do not, and have not "defended" any specific religion in this post or anywhere on this blog. I defend everyone's right to belong to any religion (or none) and to worship as they choose. I support equality of men and woman, and respect cultural differences, but certainly not abuses. I do not endorse discrimination based on nationality, race, sexual preference, gender, or age.

I have students of every major religion and a wide range of nationalities and individual abilities. Last summer I was privileged to have a new student from Iraq who is a Muslim, and barely spoke English. His family are refugees who came from Jordan after fleeing Iraq. He waited for me after the presentation, and in perfect English he told me that he loved the program and message. He thanked me for being his teacher and for helping him to get on the track team. I do not see religions or nationalities when I interact with students or others. I never have and hope I never will.

I think when Zhanna's father told her, "...just live", he didn't mean just eat, sleep and survive; he meant live your life to its fullest. He meant, "I hope you dance."

Lines and divisions create hatred, racism and prejudice, which lead to discrimination and horrible acts and consequences. Your comment did nothing to erase lines, to end the hatred or to stop misunderstandings.

Anonymous said...

Wendy: Wow - fantastic story. Thanks to you and the wonderful students at TCHS for making Holocaust Remembrance Day so memorable for us.


Wendy said...

Greg: Thank you, Candy, Aimee and Zhanna for your time, love for humanity and justice, and generous gift of your time and presence with our students. They were awed and inspired, as you witnessed. Even the professional film crew took the time to explain their work and shared words of wisdom. When the students are older, they may not remember every day in class, or many of our lessons, but none will ever forget your presentation, the book, the film and your wise words. I cannot thank you enough.

Anonymous said...

Noni 3:10,

"The VAST majority of the Muslim world condemns Israel and calls for the extermination of Jews everywhere."

"You do know that women under Islam are considered less than human? In Indonesia for example, Muslim women are basically breeding vessels for their men."

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry, but your statements are just like the "Jews drink babies' blood" or "Catholics hate America" lies that are so often bandied about. Did you get that stuff from newsmax or Rush Limbaugh or where? Do you actually know any Muslims and do you have even the faintest idea about Indonesia? Funny that you should post such things in response to Wendy's post about religious bigotry.

Anonymous said...

Mom Wendy,

Thank you for this beautiful story. It made me cry. It made me happy to. I wish I read the book.