He learned the truth at 29.
It was 1978, and NBC was about to air the miniseries Holocaust. Greg Dawson, then a feature writer/columnist for the Herald-Telephone newspaper in Bloomington, called his mother, a longtime piano professor at Indiana University who'd grown up in the Ukraine, to do a local-angle story about World War II.
She proceeded to tell him a story he'd never heard before: the horrific saga of her family being rousted from their home and sent on a death march when she was 14. Of her father bribing a Nazi soldier to let her flee and sending her off with the command, "I don't care what you do, just live. Go!" Of her chance reunion with her younger sister, Frina, who somehow also survived. Of their hiding from the Germans and using their prowess as pianists to avoid becoming casualties.
Dawson's newspaper story generated plenty of comments along the lines of: You should write a book.
Thirty-one years later, he has.
Hiding in the Spotlight ($25, Pegasus Books; available at hidinginthespotlight.com and all the usual places), which comes out June 15, tells Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson's astonishing, painful and, ultimately, uplifting story.
"This is a stretch for me," said Dawson, who wrote the Herman Hoglebogle consumer column for The Indianapolis Star from 2000-2003 and actually started the book during those years. "I spent most of my career avoiding long-form narrative writing."
In a telephone interview from Orlando, where he's on his second tour of duty writing for the Orlando Sentinel, Dawson talked about how this "Holocaust story with a happy ending" came to be. Below is an edited version of the conversation. For those who want more details, Dawson is scheduled to speak at the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis on Aug. 6.
NUVO: What did you know about your mother's past prior to 1978?
Dawson: I knew generally her family history, but I didn't really know anything about the story in detail. When I interviewed her and produced a very long story for the H-T that was when I really learned the full extent of the story.
NUVO: What was your reaction? You grew up completely unaware of this and then all of a sudden, you're finding out all this about your mom.
Dawson: I can't remember exactly what my reaction was at the time, but I'd been in the newspaper business long enough to know good copy when I saw it. I thought, "Wow, this is an unbelievable story." I remember saying, "Why didn't you tell me about this before?"
I don't remember what she said at the time, but when I started working on the book in 2000, I asked her that question again. She said, "I thought it would be cruel to tell children about this. How do you explain to children that 6 million people were murdered for no reason except that they were Jewish?"
NUVO: When you found out the story, did it change the nature of your relationship with your mother?
Dawson: Not at the time. I was startled by it, and I talked to her about how amazing it was. She's always - I wouldn't say dismissive of it, but if I hadn't called her up to interview her in conjunction with the miniseries, she probably never would have told me about it.
NUVO: As a kid, when you would complain about something, what kind of reaction would you get from your mother?
Dawson: She never made any reference to the Holocaust or even the war. She never said, "I'm tired of listening to this. When I was your age, I was being chased by Nazis across the Ukraine."
But to go back to your question about my relationship with my mother, now that I've gone through all the interviews for the book, I have gotten to know her all over again. It's given me a greater insight into her persona and her personality and a greater appreciation not only for what she went through, but her qualities.
She was able to go through this process without imploding emotionally. In fact, during the many, many hours of interviews I did with her, the only time she ever broke up and cried a little bit was when she talked about her mother. Everything else was very dry-eyed, very straightforward.
The way she forged ahead and wrote many pages of annotations and notes to me made me understand how she survived and how she became a great artist as well. It gave me a fuller understanding of her as a person. Our relationship is now deeper than it ever was.
NUVO: You started to do the first serious interviews with your mom when you were in Indianapolis?
Dawson: Yes. I was there from April 2000 to the end of 2003. When I left the [Orlando] Sentinel to take the job in Indianapolis, one of the deals with my wife, Candy, was that I would start on the book. We moved there, and that's when I started doing the interviews with my mother. I did interviews with her, I had them transcribed, I did research - and then I let it go for a while.
NUVO: How difficult was it to find a publisher?
Dawson: It was very difficult to find an agent, very difficult to find a publisher. There were a couple of bigger publishers that were very interested - the acquiring editors were. They said, "We like this. We'd like to make you an offer. We'll get back to you." When they got back to me, they said, "I'm sorry. I couldn't get it past my marketing department." They would go to their marketing department and say "Holocaust book" and the marketing department would say, "Not another one." Because there is Holocaust fatigue out there.
Before I ever did the book, I thought, if I can ever get it done, it'll make a good book, but it'll make an even better movie. That's the true destiny of this story. It's so cinematic and you can use the music in a movie. You can't do that with a book.
For more coverage of books in this week's NUVO, see page 17.