Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

After nearly three weeks of fighting, the Russians fell back and reorganized their line. But Germany's victory was costly. When the battle was over, Germany had suffered 35,000 casualties, the Russians considerably more. But the other losers wore no uniforms at all. They were people like Regina Schlanger and her daughters who now lived in a city that belonged to someone else: Germany. Few citizens had been killed or wounded in actual battle. Many were, or would one day become, casualties of a different kind.

The capture of Lødz would be only a prelude to far greater German dominance in the future. In fact, the newborn sons of these German soldiers — sons born in Germany this same year and essentially the same age as Freidel Schlanger— would someday be stamped with a mark of national German nobility. Twenty-one years hence, they would become Adolf Hitler's first conscripted military class. During World War II, some would wind up fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy or on the Eastern Front. Others would wind up working in a quaint tourist village 120 miles south of Lødz, a 700-year-old town where tourists visited to see castles, churches, and synagogues, and stopped to enjoy a cup of tea at the Hotel Herz. Its name was Oswiecim. But in time it would be better known by its German moniker: Auschwitz.

After the battle, the once-vibrant city lay still, like a frozen animal left in the wake of a snowstorm. People walked around in a daze, some having lost fortunes, others jobs, others family members to the typhoid fever that had broken out. Regina broke off pieces of dry bread and gave them to Chaja and Freidel; later, thanks to a local relief agency, she would get a quart of cabbage soup to feed the three of them for a day.

Water pumps froze. To get water, Regina would melt snow on a meager fire, fueled by whatever wood scraps she could find in a city so desperate that people had ripped down the fence around the New Jewish Cemetery and burned it in their apartments. At night, when the cold awakened her, Regina broke the ice that would form in the jug of water so her daughters would have something to drink come morning.

The Schlangers' experience was virtually everyone's experience in Lødz. Regina and her daughters waited in food-ration lines while the horse-drawn carts rolled down the street carrying the German wounded, their uniforms dirty, their bodies splotched with the dry, crusted blood of war, their eyes looking into nothingness. This was the childhood Freidel Schlanger knew. "The poor, half-mad women run after you, seize you by the sleeves, and gaze at you with inflamed eyes," wrote a Times correspondent, "while the children follow them, swollen faces livid from the cold."

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