By Greg Dawson
New York, Pegasus Books, 2009
Week 11 Memoir
Greg Dawson grew up in a musical home: his father and mother were both music professors at Indiana University in Bloomington IN. He knew that his mother was Ukrainian, but he never asked many questions, and she never volunteered any information. So, it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s and writing a newspaper article about the holocaust for the Bloomington newspaper that he asked his mother for some information to bring in some local color. His mother told him an amazing story which he finally put into a memoir, written about the years 1941-1946 when his mother Zhanna and her sister Frina escaped from a Ukrainian death march.
Zhanna and Frina were being raised as piano prodigies when the Jews in their Ukrainian city began to be persecuted. There was also the anticipation that Germany was about to invade the Ukraine. It wasn’t long before their family was rounded up and sent on a death march. The father bribed the guard with his gold watch and the girls escaped. As her father put his warm coat around Zhanna’s shoulders, he whispered into her ear, “I don’t care what you do. Just live!” They found their way to some kind people from their music conservatory who helped them create Russian names and a back story that enabled them to move to an orphanage for displaced children. There they joined a troupe of entertainers. Their music helped them survive; they accompanied the entertainers as well as played on their own, both solos and duets. As they moved from camp to camp, entertaining for the Nazi officers, they were always sure that they were going to be discovered, but the music saved them.
When the war ended, they were at a DP camp in southern Germany. The camp director, Larry Dawson, heard them playing the piano and realized that these teenage girls were the real thing (musical prodigies) even though they had taken no lessons for five years. He and his wife adopted them and took them into their home in Virginia. Larry Dawson helped them win scholarships to Julliard, where they studied which led to careers as piano soloists and piano teachers. Zhanna married Larry’s brother David, and Greg Dawson, the author, is their son.
This is a well-written memoir. Dawson weaves the narrative in three ways: the historical context of their remarkable journey; the details of the ordeal; and Zhanna’s words as they describe the scene. Not only talented, these girls were smart and plucky. They knew how to be charming and gracious to their captors as well as to those who helped them. They also were smart enough to know that their talent was what was going to save them.
Zhanna saved one thing from their Ukrainian home, Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu, which serves as the symbol of the entire story. Music is the great connector. For that reason alone, this book is worth reading.
Much has been written in the last year about this story. Below are a couple of interviews and reviews.
A story on NPR Weekend Edition:
Interview with Greg Dawson:
The book’s website: