***Note: I received a free digital review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***
Expected Publication Date: March 22nd, 2022
The Holocaust (also known as the Shoah) was the attempted genocide of the entire Jewish population in Europe carried out by German dictator Adolf Hitler and his collaborators between 1941 and 1945. Crafted as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, Hitler’s ultimate goal was the extermination of an entire people from the face of the earth, a horrific crime in aggregate.
While the crimes of the Nazis are unparalleled in the history of humanity, forgetting the stories of the people who were murdered and the people who survived is also a crime of incalculable magnitude. It is our duty to call out injustice wherever we see it, to speak truth to power, and to hold in memory the crimes of the past so that we can be the architects of a more just and equitable future.
This duty is not one that can be transferred or reassigned. We remember not only as an act of preservation but as one of defiance. Zhanna’s story is one of millions.
Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis tells the story of Zhanna Arshanskaya and her sister Frina, who survived the Holocaust by quite literally hiding in plain sight, creating new non-Jewish identities for themselves and using their musical abilities to perform for high-ranking Nazi officers, providing entertainment to the very people responsible for the murder of their entire family because they had no other choice. It was play or die. And too much had been sacrificed for the sisters to die.
When most people think of the Holocaust, they conjure up images of concentration camps, of gas chambers and emaciated bodies stacked carelessly in mass graves. There were indeed many concentration camps operated by the Nazis, but they were indifferent to the methods used as long as the job—annihilating the Jewish people from the face of the earth—was done.
For the majority of the Soviet Jews, the Nazis’ primary method of execution was the firing squad, whereby they would march them to pits and ravines and unleash volleys of bullets. They also used fire and carbon monoxide when bullets were deemed insufficient. In December 1941, the Nazis rounded up the majority of the Jews from Kharkov and made them march to an abandoned tractor factory outside the city. After a few weeks of extreme deprivation, given little to no food and having scant protection against the elements, the Jews of Kharkov (including Zhanna, her sister Frina, her parents, and her grandparents) were marched to the ravine at Drobitsky Yar, facing certain execution.
I don’t care what you do. Just live.Dmitri Arshansky
Before the ill-fated march to Drobitsky Yar, Zhanna and Frina lived what could be called charmed lives with their family in Kharkov. They were musical prodigies of the highest caliber, becoming the youngest students (ages eight and six at the time) ever accepted into and given scholarships to the famed Kharkov Conservatory of Music. It was there that Zhanna was first introduced to her favorite piece of music, her choice composition—Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. The sheet music for this composition would become Zhanna’s only material possession and thus the only physical reminder of her former life, though she could not have foreseen this.
Dmitri Arshansky was no fool. He knew with absolute certainty that the Nazis were marching them toward their deaths, and he also believed that young Zhanna was the only one who might have a chance of escaping.
Knowing this, his last gift and last act of fatherly love was to give one of their guards his golden pocket watch that he’d managed to hide during the long march in exchange for the man turning a blind eye when his daughter jumped out of line and made her escape. His final admonition to her was this: I don’t care what you do. Just live. The greatest expression of love has to be giving the last thing you have to the person you love the most; if a greater love exists, I am unaware of it.
It was Fantaisie-Impromptu that she clutched against her chest as she jumped out of line and blended into a crowd of onlookers. Knowing it was to be the last time she would see her family, she wept and wept. Not knowing where else to go, Zhanna made her way back to Kharkov. Once there, she first sought shelter with her friend and classmate Svetlana Gaponovitch and her family. She thought that since the father of the family was Jewish, despite the fact that he longer lived in the household, she would be shown mercy by people who understood her situation. Instead, she had the door slammed in her face.
Unsure of where to go next and desperately tired, hungry, and cold, she knocked on the door of another classmate, Lida Slipko. Rumor had it that Lida’s mother was an anti-Semite, but young Zhanna was out of options and at the end of her rope. To her great surprise, they (Lida and her mother) hastened her in and shut the door behind her, showing her more compassion and common humanity than she had received at the hands of the Gaponovitch family.
Her brief respite was not to last, however. Zhanna knew that to stay too long in one place would endanger not only herself but the people who sheltered her, and so Lida suggested she go to the home of Nicolai Bogancha, an acquaintance and crush of hers who lived in the same neighborhood as Zhanna did growing up.
The Bogancha family was a saving grace for Zhanna. There in their home she felt safe, cared for, and hopeful for the future. It was also during her time staying with the Bogancha family that she learned something truly miraculous—her sister Frina was still alive. After learning this, one night Nicolai’s father snuck out and retrieved Frina, bringing her to Zhanna, back to the last link she had left in the world. Words are insufficient to describe the absolute elation Zhanna experienced when she learned that her sister had managed to escape. To this day, historians have no idea how Frina managed to escape the death march to Drobitsky Yar. Frina herself never revealed how, not even to Zhanna. Some things are just too painful to share, even with the people we love most.
Together, the sisters were far too recognizable. After all, they had been performing in public for quite some time, given their enormous talent at such young ages. They knew they had to leave Kharkov, their home, and forge a new path somewhere else, somewhere the Nazis couldn’t reach them. Nicolai’s parents helped the sisters to craft new identities, giving them aliases and a backstory to protect them moving forward. They thus became Anna and Marina Morozova, orphans who had lost both parents—their mother during the German bombing of Kharkov and their father in battle while acting as an officer in Stalin’s Red Army.
As non-Jewish Russian orphans, if they could secure admission into an orphanage they could have identification papers drawn up, legally ratifying their new names and stories and giving them a modicum of protection against Nazi inquiry.
They managed to do just this, and by some act of divine providence or merciful coincidence, the orphanage they ended up at had a decrepit piano. It wasn’t much, this battered and careworn old instrument, but the talented sisters coaxed it to life and made it sing, bringing life and joy to all who heard their beautiful music. German soldiers passing by heard the lovely notes emanating from the run-down orphanage, and the director of the orphanage was so elated at this attention that he hired a piano tuner to make the instrument worthy of its practitioners.
The piano tuner’s name was Misha Alexandrovich, a kindly and intelligent man who took to Zhanna right away. He pleaded with her to come and play for the directors of the music school at Kremenchug. She was highly resistant to this suggestion, naturally not wanting to draw that much attention to herself and her sister. However, in the end she realized it would draw even more attention to refuse such a beneficent offer, and thus agreed to go.
Zhanna and Frina (Anna and Marina) accompanied Misha to Kremenchug, and the director of the school was so taken with them that they were given a studio to live and practice in. The sisters couldn’t believe their good fortune.
There was a catch to the director’s generosity, however. She needed the girls to play piano for the singers and dancers who were required to perform for the Germans at the theater next door to the school. When the theater director heard Zhanna play, he hired the sisters on the spot. And so that is how the Arshanskaya sisters came to play for the very Nazi officers who had upended their lives forever. They had taken away their home, their family, their state, and their very names, but they could not break their spirits. In the end, Zhanna and Frina would reign triumphant while the Nazi regime crumbled.
Alias Anna is a beautiful story of courage, resilience, and the triumph of the human spirit. It is a testament to the Arshanskaya sisters who survived despite all odds and the Jewish people who showed the Nazis and the world that you can destroy the body but you cannot destroy the soul, not with any force or weapon known to man. I want every person living to read this book.
*Conflicting birthdates are given for Zhanna. Alias Anna gives her birthdate as April 1st, 1927 while the oral history recorded with Zhanna by The Breman Museum gives her birthdate as February 1st, 1927. In deference to Greg Dawson, I have kept the date listed in Alias Anna.
More on the Arshanskaya Sisters and the Ukrainian Jewish Population During WWII
Playing to live: Pianist survived Holocaust by performing for Nazis (CNN) by Moni Basu
The WWII Massacres at Drobitsky Yar Were the Result of Years of Scapegoating Jews (Smithsonian Magazine) by Lorraine Boissoneault
Zhanna Arashanskaya Dawson (oral history),
Esther and Herbert Taylor Oral History Collection (The Breman Museum)
Defying Destiny—A Miraculous Tale of Survival (The Juilliard Journal) by Greg Dawson
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