A little-known fact is that Hitler’s first victims of the Jewish genocide were in the Ukraine. Dawson begins by providing a touching portrait of free-spirited little Zhanna, daughter of a candy maker. She fell asleep to her father playing the violin and his friend playing the piano. “Music,” writes Dawson, “took the place of religion in Dmitri Arshansky’s home. Paganini was his god.” Zhanna at age five began demonstrating her natural genius at the piano.
But to the Nazis who arrived in 1941, it was not religion that mattered but purported bloodlines. As a result of Stalin’s collectivization policies that starved the residents of the Arshanskyes’ small seaside city of Berdyansk, the family had moved to Kharkov, where the hard times would continue. Having been kept in the dark about Hitler’s maneuverings by a closed press, Arshansky still thought of Germans the way he had during World War I — as cultured, educated, and tolerant people. In a dramatic moment as her parents and grandparents are led away to their executions, Zhanna, with the encouragement of her father, to “just live,” breaks away. She is ultimately reunited with her sister Frina. They survive with music and their own ingenuity.
Dawson reveals how political complications of the time trickled down to the personal level: collaborations between neighbors and nations turned into betrayals. Anti-Semitism was fanned by the Nazis, but it was a family of “righteous Gentiles” that saved the girls. Americans were liberators, but the devil’s pact at Yalta put many of Eastern Europe into the murderous hands of Stalin and his henchmen.
The book is full of adventure and tragedy against the backdrop of a century that began with high hopes of progress but led to pogroms. It also is a testament to Dawson’s uncle Larry, whose distinctly naive American can-do optimism conjured near-miracles.
Dawson tells this story in the way his mother plays the piano. He begins the introduction: “When I was in grade school my mother was named winner of the Allied Arts piano competition in Chicago. To ensure an outcome based solely on music, without regard to the pianists’ age or gender or onstage theatrics, the contestants performed behind a screen. The judges were astonished to learn that the pianist with the powerful sound they unanimously chose as the winner was a woman ‘about the size of a grace-note,’ as one critic put it.”
Dawson, a columnist with the Orlando Sentinel, then recalls a telephone conversation with an agent as he tried to get the book published: “In a brusque been-there-read-that tone, she told me the genre was glutted and my only hope was to put myself in the story — make it an Oprah Book Club-friendly psychodrama about the trauma of growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor.”
But his mother did not believe in burdening children and Dawson recalls a carefree middle-class childhood. He has now written a book that preserves her story — one that is important not only because of the demonstration of character, but of a history.
For the book lover, this is a riveting read. But it should also enjoy a place on reading lists in high schools and colleges — as a corrective to the victim propaganda of books like Enrique’s Journey. A style that strikes all the right notes might make reluctant readers less so. It will also expose them to another culture and another part of history that are too often left out of the “multi” mix.