While much is known about the Holocaust in terms of concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, the execution of Hitler’s “final solution” in Ukraine via “mobile killing squads” has received much less coverage. However, a new middle grade biography brings the evils inflicted on Ukraine by both Hitler and Stalin to light, through the true story of a Jewish teenage piano prodigy who managed to outwit the Nazis and survive the war. The book, written in free verse, is called “Alias Anna,” and I recently discussed it on “Christopher Closeup” with its two authors, Susan Hood and Greg Dawson (podcast below).
Greg is the son of the “Anna” in the book’s title, whose real name was Zhanna Arshansky. He originally shared her story in the book “Hiding in the Spotlight.” Christopher Award-winning author Susan Hood (“Ada’s Violin”) came across that book and contacted Greg about writing a version for middle grade students. And that’s how “Alias Anna” came about.
Life for the people of Ukraine, which was then a part of the Soviet Union, wasn’t easy even before the Nazis arrived. Greg explained, “Stalin was responsible for the death of four million Ukrainians through an enforced famine in the early thirties, because the Ukraine refused to get with his collectivization program for agriculture. And so he basically shut the border and starved the Ukrainians to death. A low estimate is four million people. And that led to my mother’s family having to move from one city to another.”
Despite the move, Zhanna and her sister Frina had an “idyllic childhood” in Eastern Ukraine, specifically Kharkov (now known as Kharkiv). Once Zhanna and Frina’s gifts for playing the piano were discovered, they were put in special schools for musical prodigies which helped them develop their talents, not knowing at the time that their talents would save their lives.
Because of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, the Jewish people in Ukraine never learned what the Nazis were doing until Hitler broke the pact and invavded the country. Hitler’s lies about Jews being responsible for the war quickly spread, leaving some Ukrainians approving of what happened next: the systematic slaughter of their Jewish neighbors by Nazis who would round them up, march them into a ravine, line them up, and shoot them.
Both Greg and Susan said that they had never learned about this in school, so it became a revelation that shocked them. Greg noted, “At least 750,000 Ukrainian Jews were dead before the doors of Auschwitz or Treblinka or the other death camps even opened…That’s really where it began. That’s something that’s little known in this country.”
Zhanna, Frina, and their parents were on a forced death march when her father was able to bribe one of the guards to allow Zhanna to escape. His final words to her were, “I don’t care what you do. Just live.”
Susan writes in the book that the war was filled with both “blessings and betrayals” for Zhanna – and that’s exactly what happened next. After Zhanna got away, she ran to the house of a friend in Kharkiv, believing the family would help her. But when the mother opened the door and saw Zhanna, she slammed it immediately. Heartbroken, Zhanna didn’t know where to go. The only other home she could approach was that of a school acquaintance, not a real friend, whose mother Zhanna believed to be anti-Semitic. But Zhanna had no other options, so she knocked on the door. Shockingly, her classmate’s mother took her in immediately and allowed her to stay with them. A few days later, Frina escaped as well, allowing the sisters to reunite.
Greg said, “There were Christian…families in Ukraine who hid my mother and her sister at the risk of death. Because if the Nazis found you were harboring Jews, everyone would be shot. And there’s a special honor in Israel for people like them, they’re called Righteous Gentiles. It’s a very small, select group of people, non-Jews, who put their lives on the line to help Jews during the Holocaust. And [one of the families] that saved them…were officially recognized as Righteous Gentiles by the State of Israel.”
Zhanna and Frina were soon able to get forged identification papers that hid their Jewish background.They became Anna and Marina. And because of their piano talents, they were able to become entertainers for the Nazis who did not know they were Jewish – though they sometimes had to deal with jealous colleagues who suspected the truth and tried to expose them.
Greg said, “Once they were on their own, the sense of survival [kicked in]. For example…during the years when she was a captive entertainer for the Nazis, [Zhanna] would be invited to dine with the SS and the field officers. They would sit around the table, have dinner. Then afterwards she and her sister would play for hours and hours for these Nazi officers and Gestapo. Germans loved music. And they were very decorous and polite. And I said, ‘How could you do that? How could you play for the same people that you knew had murdered your parents and your grandparents?’ And she said, ‘I wasn’t playing for them. When I was playing, I was playing for my mother, my father, my grandparents, I was playing for Mozart and Chopin and Brahms, and the music I loved.'”
Zhanna saved Frina’s life numerous times throughout the war. And though she didn’t know it at the time, Frina ultimately saved Zhanna’s. After the war ended, Zhanna wanted to return to Ukraine, but Frina insisted they go to the United States instead. As it turned out, Stalin branded most of those who returned to the Soviet Union as traitors. As a result, they suffered exile, torture, and death.
Thankfully, life moved in a positive direction for the sisters after the war. Greg observed, “One thing about my mother I found remarkable is that after her experience, she never betrayed any bitterness. Tremendous anger, but there’s an important difference I think between anger and bitterness. I think bitterness can be crippling to you. Anger is a healthy reaction…But it was always anger, it wasn’t bitterness…And when they reached this country, remarkably, they still were buoyant. They were still in love with performing.”
Susan added, “I was so struck by [the girls’] talent and how music and the arts really saved them. They end up making it all the way to New York and get full scholarships to Juilliard. So it’s such a triumphant story…I would love for kids to take away Zhanna’s courage and resilience. She faced probably some of the most horrible things that could possibly happen to a human. And she stayed true to herself, true to her sister.”
(To listen to my full interview with Susan Hood and Greg Dawson, click on the podcast link):