Zhanna Arshkanskaya and her sister, Frina, were virtually the only survivors of the Nazi slaughter of Jews at Drobitsky Yar, Ukraine, in 1941 – 42. Through the unlikely events that sometimes allowed Jews to adopt Christian identities during the Holocaust, they managed to evade capture as Anna and Marina Morozova and eventually emigrate to the United States. Zhanna’s son, Greg Dawson, who has previously chronicled his mother’s life in his book for adults, Hiding in the Spotlight, has now collaborated with author Susan Hood to interpret the same events for middle grade and young adult readers. Using poetry, they narrate both the broad historical background as well as its specific catastrophic effects on the lives of two Jewish children, both gifted musicians.
Pending danger has been a part of Zhanna’s life from a young age. Her childhood is initially warm and secure, enriched by her family’s love of music, “the beating heart of their home.” Soon, Zhanna and Frina are recognized as prodigies, performing Bach over the radio, and eventually becoming celebrated figures. But antisemitism always looms, and Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler brings only a brief and illusory reprieve from the Soviet dictator’s murderous policies. Much worse is to come with Hitler’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Even seemingly unrelated threats, such as an epidemic of scarlet fever, set the stage with an intense sense of the vulnerability that pervades the lives of everyone in Europe, but particularly Jews.
Before separating from his daughter, Zhanna’s father grants her the last piece of advice he will ever give: “I don’t care what you do. Just live.” With that moral permission, Zhanna enters a maze of encounters — which, although they are horrifying, eventually lead to her safety. She is courageous and persistent, but the authors never imply that these qualities are the only reasons she eludes the Nazis. There is no point in the narrative where the final results of Zhanna’s trials seem inevitable.
Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, as well as other compositions, frame Zhanna’s life. As a child with little exposure to Jewish ritual, she is initially attracted to the musical sounds of the Russian Orthodox Church in a funeral procession. The authors do not belabor this irony — like so much else about prewar Jewish life in Europe, it stands on its own as both fact and metaphor. Zhanna’s dedication to music is exploited and finally redeemed; under her assumed identity, she is forced to entertain Nazi officers, but later she performs for the newly liberated inmates of Dachau.
Hood tells Zhanna’s story through both free verse and a rich array of forms. One chapter uses the full alphabet as initial letters of categories for Stalin’s victims. Elegies, haiku, couplets, and tercets, also capture the essence of different points through different lenses. The use of poetry is effective, echoing in its complexity the music of a singular life caught in the chaos of history.
This highly recommended book includes extensive background material, photos, sources, lists of musical compositions, and poetic forms.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.