Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson's name is etched on the wall of a stark underground memorial in Ukraine, next to that of her sister, Frina, their parents and grandparents. She was presumed dead, like the 16,000 other Jews from Kharkov who perished under the Nazis in the winter of 1941.
Only, Dawson survived, as did her sister.
They lived through the Holocaust, saved solely by their musical genius. Dawson's son Greg believes his mother and aunt are the only two Jewish survivors from Kharkov.
He came upon their names at the memorial in 2006 when he visited Ukraine to write a book about his mother, "Hiding in the Spotlight." After the war, she made a successful life for herself as an accomplished pianist in the United States and had kept silent on her history for many years until her sons had grown up.
Seeing her name came as a shock to Greg Dawson. He remembers his finger freezing upon the Russian lettering; shivers shooting up his spine.
How narrowly she had escaped death, he realized.
On this Friday evening, Greg Dawson, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is visiting his mother in Atlanta. The city's Oglethorpe University is honoring her Saturday with a doctor of letters. She will don a cap and gown and march down the aisle along with another honoree, CNN founder Ted Turner.
It is recognition for a woman who played the piano in the vein of Vladimir Horowitz but with the modesty of an unknown. Recognition for a triumph of spirit amid the worst of humanity.
Zhanna Dawson was selected for "her indomitable spirit, courage, honesty, and sense of purpose," says Oglethorpe Provost Denise von Herrmann.
Dawson hangs up a pair of creamy yellow pants freshly dry-cleaned for the occasion. She is excited that finally, at a youthful 85, she will earn her first degree. War kept her from high school; marriage drew her away from the prestigious Juilliard School.
But her love of music has always been with her.
It has been more than a decade since she last put fingers to a keyboard. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome and when doctors told her that surgery could, at best, bring her strength back to 70%, she refused and decided at that moment to give up what she loved most in life.
Eventually, when she no longer taught students she believed had potential, she disposed of the baby grand and upright that occupied a chunk of her condominium's living room, the space now occupied by glass-front cabinets bearing family photographs and mementos. None gives away the suffering she endured.
She has nothing left of her past, save a handful of family photos given to her many years later by a relative, and the one thing she managed to rescue from her house when the Nazis stormed in.
Dawson's love affair with the piano began when she was 5. A year later, she performed Bach's Invention Number 1 in public.
Her father, Dimitri Arshansky, a candymaker by trade, ordered a shiny new Bechstein piano from Germany and encouraged both his daughters to study music at the local conservatory. A professor there introduced little Zhanna to Chopin's "Fantasy Impromptu." She was determined to perfect her playing of the piece.
But life as she knew it stopped with World War II. The Nazis invaded Kharkov in 1941. Only 14 then, Dawson remembers seeing bodies of Jews hanging from lampposts.
On a frigid December day, German soldiers stormed into the house at 48 Katsarskaya Street, rounded up her entire family and shoved them into a long line of Jews forced to march out of the city.
It was the last time she saw her house. The only possession she was able to take with her was the sheet music sitting on her piano. "Fantasy Impromptu."
"I couldn't have possibly left it," she says, thinking back to that wretched day. She didn't need the written notes to play it; she knew it by heart. But it had her teacher's scribbles on it. And it was her favorite piece of music.
The Nazis forced Kharkov's Jews to walk 12 miles outside the city in the bitter cold and snow. Occasionally, a mother would push her young child toward the crowd watching the exodus, in hopes that someone would have sympathy and rescue the child. If her actions were detected, the Nazis shot her on the spot, Dawson remembers.
Her family was taken to an abandoned tractor factory designed to hold 1,800 people. The Nazis forced 13,000 Jews into the barracks without warmth or food. Many people died there.
"It was inhuman," she recalls in her son's book. "The sight of women the age of my mother and grandmother made me shake in shame for the Germans."
The day after Christmas, the Jews were ordered to prepare for transportation. Dawson says her father knew they were all going to die when he saw the trucks go north. There was nothing to the north. It was a road to Dobritsky Yar, a road to the unthinkable.