Zhanna Dawson penned an eloquent letter from Atlanta, where she had moved after her husband's death. After that, she began speaking publicly about her life and no longer kept secrets. Except one.
She had lied about her date of birth all those years ago so that the orphanage would take her in -- Russian orphanages did not accept children over the age of 14. Instead of revealing her true birthday of April 1, 1927, Dawson had changed it to December 25.
Her sons celebrated mom's birthday on Christmas day, until 12 years ago, when she came clean.
"I thought it was an April Fool's joke at first," Greg Dawson says.
"But I never changed the year," says Zhanna. And proud to share a birthday with pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.
She has recordings of her own concerts. And she loves to listen to music. She has expanded from classical to jazz and even popular piano music. Liberace, she says, can play like the best of them.
She cannot stand to watch television or movies with violence. She has never seen any movies about the Holocaust, not even "Schindler's List" or "The Pianist," Roman Polanski's film about Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman's survival in the Warsaw Ghetto. Too painful to watch, Dawson says.
However, she participated in The Shoah Victims' Names Recovery Project which aims to memorialize each Jew killed in the Holocaust by recording their names and stories. On her family's page are photographs of her mother, Sara, and father, Dmitri, and also of Prokofiy and Yevdokia Bogancha, the couple who helped Dawson and her sister after they escaped the death march.
Now, she has another validation of her life and the music that saved her: an honorary university degree. She will keep it as she has the other pieces of paper that matter. The five sheets of music of Chopin's "Fantasy Impromptu" that she tucked under her clothes and survived with her.
"How she preserved five sheets of music is beyond me," Greg Dawson says. "You know how perishable paper is."
The sheet music was Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson's treasure; it kept her going all those years when there was so little hope for survival. It is safely locked away now in a bank safety deposit box, something for newer generations of her family to look at -- and remember a survivor.