Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

In some respects, Frances Slanger was like the seventeen others in the Forty-fifth: just another adventure-starved young nurse who'd become an officer in the Army Nurse Corps, much to the dismay of some back home who believed such women were, at best, man-hungry hussies and, at worst, a threat to foul the entire American military machine. But in other respects, she was as different from the others as France's Normandy region was from its Alps.

Frances Slanger's life was bracketed by war. She was fifteen months old when the ponies carrying the saber-wielding Cossacks first clomped through the cobblestone streets of Lødz, Poland, the horses' nostrils snorting steam in the brittle winter air. Grim-faced officers, clad in woolen greatcoats and topped with fur papakha hats, barked commands. Regiments of foot soldiers spread to posts at the city's outskirts. The officers' knee-high black boots dug into the horses' flanks and the animals bolted, some to the left, some to the right. Soon, the gossip birds on Piotrkow Street chattered with more dread than usual: Three months after the outbreak of World War I, the Russians, they'd heard, were bracing for battle with German soldiers who, even now, were rattling north on trains. The burly city of Lødz (pronounced "Woodge") was a stepchild of the Russian Empire. It was a place where the textile factory whistles blew, where the brick chimneys belched the roiling plumes of progress, and where the long-bearded Jews in skullcaps, round glasses, and long black gabardines tussled over theological questions like crows fighting over pieces of bread.

Like most of the Jews, particularly the Jews who didn't own the factories, Frances and her family lived in the slums of Baluty, thousands of them packed in the basements or in garrets of dilapidated houses like herring in dockside crates. In all of Poland, only Warsaw had a larger Jewish population than Lødz; nearly half the city's 410,000 people in 1910 were Jews. Flat-faced, stone tenements, two or three stories high, hugged the narrow streets that wound through the city in a maze of dark, narrow hallways — streets now sprinkled with Russian soldiers.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Regina's husband, Dawid, had left for America two springs before, knowing full well that she was going to have the baby, but also knowing full well that Poland, for the Jews, would forever be more prison than home. He and Regina had both been born in 1881, the year the pogroms slaughtered Jews in villages across the pale. On ponies, the Cossacks swooped into villages at night like dogs ripped free from their leashes. They swept across Poland, torching synagogues. They shattered Stars of David symbols with their swords — Hep, hep Jude! They killed and maimed and laughed as they rode off into the darkness, their vodka-fueled violence triggered by well-worn stories of Jews murdering Christian children. New edicts were issued that robbed the Jews of the right to live in a particular place, to gain an education, to earn a living. Exiled, the Jews trudged toward cities such as Lødz to begin anew, everything they owned piled in carts or strapped to their backs. But the hatred followed them. Shortly after Dawid and Regina married in Lødz, the Revolution of 1905 sparked a new wave of vengeance against the Jews. It reached a crescendo in 1912 when the Jews voted for the "wrong candidate" in an election. They paid the price in blood.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...