Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson had a message of faith and perseverance for attendees at Oglethorpe University’s commencement ceremony on May 12.
Dawson, an 85-year-old accomplished pianist, Holocaust survivor and former faculty member at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, was receiving an honorary degree.
“When the Nazis forced my family from our home in Ukraine, I was just 14 years old. At that tender age I saw unimaginable evil. The shameful treatment of the Jews in my village was something I could never forget,” Dawson said.
When the Nazis came to Dawson’s small village, she said, her father pleaded for her life and bribed a German guard to keep her safe. She then hid her Jewish identity and during the war worked as an entertainer to the Germans, playing piano for them.
“Despite so much evil, I have kept my faith in the goodness of the human spirit,” Dawson said. “I thank my granddaughter for making me tell my story I had not wanted to relive it—but I did. How could I refuse, it’s my granddaughter.”
Dawson said the life she endured at the hands of the Nazis made her appreciate life “all the more.” She said she was in constant fear of her identity being discovered and could have never survived those many years without the beauty of the music she played.
“I may have been entertaining the enemy but I assure you I was not playing for them. I was playing to the memory of my parents; I was playing for the composers and playing for the music itself,” Dawson said. “I would not be here today if it were not for Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and so many others. I would not be here today if it were not for the heroic actions of non-Jewish Ukrainian people.”
Sue Adcock Frueauff, a foundation and community leader, and philanthropist and media mogul Ted Turner also received degrees.
Several hundred parents, students, family members and friends braved the rainy morning to attend the commencement ceremony.
Oglethorpe’s Class of 2012 president Justin Sabree told the audience although many emotions are associated with graduation, the two most fitting ones to him are pride and gratitude.
“Pride almost goes without saying. During our time at Oglethorpe each one of us has pushed ourselves to succeed. Yes, there might have been external pressures from our family and our professors, but ultimately it was each of us that typed those core papers about Aristotle,” Sabree said. “I hope that the pride of our degree keeps each of us confident in whatever challenges lie [ahead].”
Turner’s daughter Laura Turner Seydel graduated from Oglethorpe in 1986. As his grandson introduced him, rattling off a long list of Turner’s accomplishments, the rain continued to fall.
“I’m glad to be here with my daughter and to receive this honorary degree. I’m really proud and happy and I can’t thank you enough. I’ve been to 46 of these and it’s the first time it has ever rained,” Turner quickly said before sitting back down amid cheers and several gasps.
“That may have been the shortest speech Mr. Turner has ever given,” said Oglethorpe president Lawrence Schall who began calling students up onstage to receive their diplomas.