Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

In weeks to come, German soldiers, wearing formed-leather helmets with brass spikes on top and wrapped in woolen greatcoats, swaggered from flat to flat. Freidel heard the soldiers bang on the door with the butts of their rifles and watched them kick it open with their knee-high jackboots. Freidel and her aunts and uncles and cousins cowered together. The soldiers entered and took what they pleased: copper pots and brass doorknobs and menorahs. Whatever might be melted down and used for ammunition. Whatever war demanded. Tuberculosis and typhoid fever epidemics broke out. Hospitals were too crowded to handle all the afflicted people. Hordes of paupers were hauled off to disinfecting stations to be scrubbed, shaved, and deloused. Soldiers mocked the Jewish poor as they were stripped for scrubbings. As weeks became months, Regina hung on to her monthly ration card as if it were made of gold. But her paltry diet diluted whatever nutrients she might pass on to Freidel through her milk. She'd all but forgotten the taste of potato cakes or hot chickpeas. For two weeks, Lødzhad no bread at all. For months, no meat.

Meanwhile, the streets became the property of funeral processions. Unemployed women sold their bodies for a crust of bread. Some others offered their children to employers in exchange for something to eat or forced the boys and girls to become food smugglers. In Baluty, the weak sounds of Sabbath songs endured, an occasional violin softening the hard edges of hopelessness. The gossips lost their zeal for Baluty's smut. Instead, they whispered of unspeakable horrors that they'd heard from faraway families, like the bayoneted bodies of children outside Lødz. Have you heard? They were hung on fences like scarecrows! Finally, the spring of 1915 arrived, bringing with it not the usual smell of plowed fields and fresh vegetables, but the whiff of thawed sewers — and the rancid stench of thawed bodies from the battlefields beyond. For four years, Germany and Russia took turns sucking life out of a once-vibrant city and its once-vibrant people, whether that meant plundering houses, retooling factories for the war effort, hoarding food for themselves, or ripping the beards off Orthodox Jews. At war's end, in 1918, foreign delegations arrived in the region to assess the damage. They disagreed as to whether Germans or Russians were responsible for the horror left behind, but this they agreed on: nowhere in eastern Europe was the suffering of civilians during World War I greater than in Lødz, Poland. Wrote one American journalist: "All that [is] left are the graves of the dead, the emaciated bodies of the living, and the shell-scarred land, denuded of almost every trace of vegetation."

Freidel Schlanger was nearly five years old when World War I ended. She was gaunt, with dark, hollow eyes that had seen far too much. But alive.

At 7:30 A.M., the Pendleton's engines stopped. By now, the drone had become so rote in the ears of the hundreds onboard that the new silence held an eerie foreboding, especially when punctuated by the sound of German shells lobbed into the flotilla from gun emplacements beyond the beach.

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