Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

Enough. Others had left for America. Why not the Schlangers? Dawid had a cousin, Jacob Grossman, in a place called Boston, Massachusetts. He had offered Dawid room in his flat on Harrison Avenue. Dawid figured that within a year he could earn enough money to bring his wife and children to America. He arrived at Ellis Island on May 22, 1913, aboard the steamship Pretoria, having turned thirty-two years old just two days out of New York Harbor. Once in Boston, he began work as a fruit peddler.

Three months later, back in Lødz, Regina gave birth to Freidel Yachet Schlanger. To the Poles, she was a Jew and, thus, a threat. To the Jews, she was a girl and, thus, a liability. "Many daughters, many troubles," went the Jewish saying. "Many sons, many honors." To Dawid she was a name that arrived in a letter and, thus, an unknown. But to her mother, Freidel was a shayna maidel — a beautiful girl, her blessed second daughter. Freidel was a brown-eyed, brown-haired babe whom Regina honored with the Yiddish name Faiga after the baby's paternal grandmother, Frajda Górska. The following June, in 1914, Dawid was close to having earned enough money for his family's passage to America when the news hit Lødz's Piotrkow Street: in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, had been assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. Like a lightning strike on a tinder-dry forest, World War I exploded. And Regina's worst fears soon came to pass: with German submarines prowling the Atlantic Ocean's shipping lanes, steamship owners decided the passage to America was too dangerous to risk under any flag. Immigration ground to a halt.

Thus did Freidel Schlanger begin her life: no more free than the hardened streams that only weeks before had flowed into Poland's Vistula River but were now frozen in place by forces beyond themselves.

As November deepened, the icy breath of war chilled the neck of Lødz. German troops — 250,000 of them — advanced north by train as winter hardened the lifeless plains in a sea of white. In and around Lødz, some 150,000 Russian troops braced for the attack. In the Schlanger family's drafty flat, amid coughs and sniffles, Regina huddled Chaja and Freidel close, her body far warmer than their straw beds. Around them: relatives, bound by blood and, for now, a common fear that deepened with the sound in the distance. Cannons began pounding. It was November 18, 1914. The Battle of Lødz had begun.

The two forces clashed on the city's fringes, and occasionally in the city itself, day after bitter day. Temperatures dipped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Soldiers froze to death in trenches while trying to sleep. "The battlefield was swimming in blood," reported The Times of London. "Discarded German capes, Prayer-books, notebooks, gaiters, gloves, cartridge boxes, haversacks, gnawed bones, tinned meat cans, and straw from the trenches littered the hill slopes. Deep pits had been made by shells in front of the trenches, and in the trenches were heaps of corpses. From the battlefield, Lødz appeared to be enveloped in red flames, and several fires occurred daily in the town. Parts of the cities had been shelled. The people were defenceless."

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