Zhanna Arshanskaya was born to Jewish parents in 1927 by the Sea of Azov in Ukraine, USSR. Her mother, Sara, gave her the Russian name closest to Joan because she revered the fearless warrior, Joan of Arc. Little did Sara know that her curious, adventurous, impetuous daughter would grow up to be a hidden, silent warrior against the tyranny of Nazism.
Music filled the Arshanskaya household, and it soon became evident that Zhanna and her sister Frina, younger by two years, were piano prodigies. The Communist regime condemned belief in any religion or power that competed with it, “so music was the spiritual refuge” for the family.
In the early 1930s when Joseph Stalin rose to power, the family’s happy times were swallowed up when he inflicted “death by hunger” on the “breadbasket of Europe” and worked to rid the country of all the old ways. When Zhanna’s father, Dmitri, refused to become a member of the Communist party, he was arrested and released several times. Eventually, the family moved to Kharkov. But their troubles multiplied when the Nazis invaded Ukraine and rounded up the Jews in Kharkov, sending them on a death march. In a miraculous turn of events, Dmitri was able to secure Zhanna’s freedom, bribing the guard with his gold watch to look the other way and urging Zhanna to run, whispering words that stayed with her for a lifetime: “I don’t care what you do. Just live.” Zhanna’s parents and grandparents were murdered with thousands of other Jews in Drobytsky Yar, a ravine in Kharkov.
Alias Anna traces Zhanna and Frina’s harrowing narrative. Their musical abilities offered them opportunities to survive in plain sight, and they eventually performed for Nazi soldiers. After WWII ended, the girls, now teens, chose to settle in the United States and pursue their musical careers there.
For decades, Zhanna refused to talk about her past. But when her 13-year-old granddaughter asked her to share her life story, Zhanna finally had the courage to do so. Zhanna’s son, Greg Dawson, then wrote about his mother’s escape from the Holocaust in Hiding in the Spotlight. But he also wanted to share her story with middle school readers. In a note, Dawson writes, “Susan Hood’s ingenious retelling of Hiding in the Spotlight … is the answer to my mother’s question, ‘How can you tell children about such things?’ This is how: with rhythmic, accessible verse in service of a faithful abridging of the story for youthful sensibilities.”
In Alias Anna, middle school readers will encounter, on the one hand, captivating courage, unexpected compassion, and sacrificial love, and, on the other hand, unspeakable cruelty, diabolical hatred, and brutal mercilessness. However, hope has the last word: “It was Zhanna’s story of loss and pain / that now became / a song, / a sonata / dedicated to / strength, / sisters, / and the music that saved them.” (HarperCollins)