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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives



                               RUTH EINSTEIN

DATE:                     JUNE 1, 2009


Transcript (PDF)

Zhanna Arashanskaya was born on April 1, 1927 in Berdyansk, Ukraine to Sara and Dmitri Arshansky. She had one sister, Frina, who was two years younger. Zhanna developed a love of music early on and began piano lessons as a small child. Economic conditions then forced the family to move to Kharkov, where Zhanna and Frina were enrolled at the prestigious Kharkov Conservatory. Kharkov was occupied soon after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. In December 1941, all of the Jews from Kharkov and the surrounding area were rounded up and marched to an abandoned tractor factory outside of Kharkov. After a few weeks, the Jews—including Zhanna, her sister, parents, and grandparents—were marched out of the city toward a ravine called Drobitsky Yar. Realizing they were to be executed, her father bribed a guard to look the other way as Zhanna stepped out and blended in with the citizens on the side of the road watching.

Zhanna went back to Kharkov and was given shelter by a schoolmate’s family. She was soon reunited with her sister, who had also escaped. The sisters adopted false identities and headed to the city of Poltava. When the families they stayed with grew suspicious, the girls headed to an orphanage in the town of Kremenchug. When their musical talents were discovered, the girls were taken out of the orphanage and became piano players for a troupe of dancers that performed regularly for German and Austrian soldiers. Eventually, the troupe was transferred back to Germany and performed several times a day in and around Berlin. By 1944, the Russians were advancing and it was necessary for the troupe to leave Berlin. They headed south. Zhanna and Frina were with the troupe in Kempten, Germany when the Americans liberated the area.

After the war, Zhanna and Frina lived in a Displaced Persons [DP] camp near Munich known as Funk Kaserne. Larry Dawson, the camp’s American commander, offered to adopt the girls and get them to the United States. In 1946, the sisters boarded the first ship of DPs to go to America. They arrived in New York City and then traveled by train to Crozet, Virginia, where they lived on a farm with the commander’s family. The girls auditioned for and were given full scholarships to the Juilliard School in New York City. While still in school, Zhanna married Larry’s brother, David, an accomplished viola player with a string quartet. They both became instructors at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. They had two sons. Zhanna eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Her son, Greg, wrote a book about her experience entitled, Hiding in the Spotlight.  

Scope of Interview:
Zhanna describes her early life growing up in Berdjansk and Kharkov, Ukraine and how her love of music developed. She details how life changed under Stalin and again when World War II began. After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Zhanna recounts how the Jews of Kharkov were rounded up and then forced to march toward an unknown fate. She explains how her father bribed a guard so that she could escape. Zhanna considers the relationships between Jews and non-Jews in her childhood, the persecution her father experienced under Stalin, and how the Germans managed to get the Jews to submit. Zhanna recounts how a schoolmate’s family took her in, reunited her with her sister, and helped them travel to another city under false identities. She outlines the journey she and her sister made before being forced to play piano for a troupe of dancers performing for German and Austrian soldiers. She tells how they travelled to Germany as the Soviet troops advanced. Zhanna recalls her first encounter with Americans when the war ended. She tells how the commander of a Displaced Persons [DP] camp adopted the sisters and sent them back to the United States. She describes how they adjusted to life in American, studied at the Juilliard School, and how she met her husband. She reflects on her amazing story of survival, with all its twists and turns, and the kind of life she made for herself and her two sons. She often refers to the book her son Greg wrote about her experience entitled, Hiding in the Spotlight. She considers what role Judaism plays in her present life and how her experiences inform her political perspective. 

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