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Marvelous Mensch

Greg Dawson

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You may know Orlando Sentinel columnist Greg Dawson from his consumer advocacy column, "The Last Resort," in which he helps mediate between companies and dissatisfied consumers (Greg currently has a column in the Business Section of the Orlando Sentinel). Ironically, Greg's mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, a Jewish girl from the Ukraine, was truly at her last resort from 1941-45, when she survived the Holocaust as a piano playing prodigy, passing as a gentile with falsified papers.

Zhanna, who used the alias Anna Morozova, kept alive by playing the piano for Nazi and SS officers in Germany, and throughout European war zones. Zhanna made it through this unbearable existence by relying on the last words her father told her: "I don't care what you do, just live."

For his sake, and for her younger sister, Frina, who remained in her care throughout World War II, she did what was necessary to survive. Remarkably, Greg Dawson did not learn his mother's incredible story until he was an adult. In 2009, he retold her story in a book, "Hiding in the Spotlight."

On Sunday, Nov. 6, the documentary film "Sharing in the Spotlight," which focuses on the Dawson family's shared experience, premiered at the Jewish Community Center in Maitland. The film discussed Zhanna's wartime experiences and was enhanced through a discussion session from Zhanna, Greg, wife Candy and their daughter, Aimee.

Greg explains that writing "Hiding in the Spotlight" presented challenges to his usually light writing style. He notes, "Books about the Holocaust are usually written by survivors or historians. I wanted my mother's story told, so I put aside my whimsical tone, and my wife, Candy, helped keep me in check whenever I lightened my approach." Greg's skill in telling the story is supported by the book's five-star rating on Amazon.com and strong reviews on the website goodreads.com

At the war's end, Zhanna and Frina were rescued by Larry Dawson, the U.S. Army serviceman who liberated them. Larry planned to adopt the two sisters and bring them to America. Zhanna eventually fell in love with, and married, Larry's brother, David (a musical prodigy who graduated from The Juilliard School). Both Zhanna and Frina later attended Juilliard, despite their lack of formal education,

Zhanna could not bear to share the details of her own horrific adolescence with her children. Greg did not become aware of his mother's childhood history and heritage until he was 16 years old. The whole story did not come out until many years later, when Greg was a grown man with a family, and his daughter, Aimee, was given an assignment by her middle school teacher.

"Aimee was asked to interview a grandparent about what life was like when they were of middle school age," Greg said. "At the time, my mother was the only grandparent left."

Much to his surprise, Zhanna wrote down four pages of text for Aimee, detailing her life under the Nazi regime. "Once my mother began telling her story," Greg said. "She wanted everyone to know. She did a taping for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Project, and later we discussed putting together a book."

How has the discovery of his mother's roots and her experiences during the Holocaust impacted Greg Dawson? "I am more self-aware of where I come from," he said. "Remember, by the time I knew the details, I was almost 30 and an established newspaper writer and family man. Zhanna's situation was clearly way beyond what any sane person would consider 'The Last Resort.' From the perspective of a writer, I thought my mother's history was amazing and astonishing and worthy of the spotlight."