ORLANDO, Fla. - Orlando Sentinel columnist Greg Dawson spoke to the students of Valencia, Friday, about one of the most personal aspects of his life: his mother.
Dawson's mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya, is one of 16,000 Jewish people to survive the invasion of Ukraine by Germany during the Holocaust. Only she and her sister, Frina, are known survivors to escape the clutches of the Nazi Army, during the Soviet era.
The two girls, then 12 and 8 years old, hid in plain sight of the Germans by "entertaining the enemies." The sisters played piano, acted, and sang under commission of the Third Reich.
"By the time I had heard the story, I was about 30," Dawson said. He was not raised by his mother, knowing she had survived the horrors of the Holocaust. "It was almost like hearing a stranger tell you this story."
Arshanskaya was given the chance to jump out of line of the impending death march at Drabitsky Yar through a bribe that her father, Dmitri, made with one of the Nazi soldiers. He gave the soldier his pocket watch and asked to turn a blind eye, so that young Zhanna could escape into the woods.
Her father's last words to her were, "I don't care what you do, just live."
Dawson presented a short video outlining some of the trials that Arshanskaya went through, the students in the audience paying rapt attention.
The Jewish were taken from their homes and marched for 2 weeks, having no food and very little water to survive on. Not all of them survived.
Statues meant to pay homage to famed poets and artists, of the age, hung the corpses of Jewish people, instead. The city of Kharkov, Ukraine would never be the same.
He admitted that it wasn't too easy to write the book, "Hiding in the Spotlight."
"You can be a great sprinter, without being a marathon runner and vice-versa," said Dawson. Essentially, you may be able to write short news stories full of facts and objectivity, but when you try to write a more creative, personal narrative, it can wear you out.
Being a career journalist, he has learned this lesson all too well.
Valencia student Amanda Masri already began reading the book, after picking it up in the bookstore, a few days before the event.
"I wasn't a huge fan of his writing at first, because of his journalistic style," Masri said, "but it is interesting. He's very facts-oriented."
To everyone's surprise, sophomore Richelle Clark, received a copy of Dawson's book, with an exceptional addition within the first few pages.
Arshanskaya, herself, signed Clark's book, without anyone knowing beforehand. She is the only person to have this signature in her copy of the book.
Young Frina Arshanskaya escaped, but to this day will not divulge to anyone how she managed to survive.
The Arshanskayas were reunited several days later, a hospitable couple, the Boganchas, took them in.
In 1945, they were liberated by Americans and taken to a displaced person's camp in Munich, Germany. Larry Dawson was leader of the camp.
Young Zhanna could hide her heritage inside the facade of an Aryan child, but she could not hide her talent for music. Larry Dawson helped the girls organize a concert to perform in New York, where they both gained scholarships to Julliard.
Eventually, Arshanskaya married David Dawson, Larry's brother. By then, he was an established musician and a member of a quartet at Berkshire University.
The student audience was highly affected, in sharing these personal memories with Dawson.
"It was heart-wrenching to see the picture of his mother, standing by the tree," said Carla Rhodes, a sophomore. "It's as if you're right there, with them."
"I came to appreciate just how strong she is," Dawson said. Because she was a concert pianist, he thinks that she gained that "focus, discipline, and fortitude that you need to survive," through her passion for playing piano.
Arshanskaya was made a hero in the telling of her tale. Today, she is 83 years old.
Previously published in the Valencia Voice