American Nightingale

Last week was interesting to say the least. I spent a crazy Monday, sewing “Sparky’s” quilt together. At around 01:00, I was done. Tuesday I read, trying to keep the children from killing each other. Wednesday was spent weeding with a friend in my front flower bed. Thursday, I sat and read almost the entire “Heaven to Betsy”, to “Cookie” so I could lend it to my friend Sunday ((yesterday). And then I sat all of Friday and Saturday reading “American Nightingale: The story of Frances Slanger. Forgotten Heroine of Normandy”.  And it is one of those books that stay with you. For many reasons.

When I bought it, I did so to get a female view of D-day and yet another witness account of that day, to my D-day library. I did not fully pay attention to what I was buying. I am glad that I discovered this book and let’s say, I got more and more impressed with it, with every page I read. The author is a journalist at a small newspaper in Oregon, USA, and who would have guessed that a non-historian could produce such a book like this? I am impressed. This book is not just the story of Frances Slanger but also about Lodz, Poland and about the 6 million Jews that were exterminated in camps. And it is about Nazi madness. But first and foremost, it is a story about an ugly girl, from a very poor background that succeeded against all odds and who came to do something worthwhile in her short life!

Usually I get irritated when a book jumps back and forth in history but it worked for this book in more ways than one and I hope I can explain why. The book jumps from 10 June and Frances coming ashore on Utah beach with 17 other nurses to work in the 45th Field Hospital. The reader gets to follow her and her fellow nurses, doctors, enlisted men up the beach, setting up hospital, receving patients and then moving on because Germans were coming their way… But this is not what makes this book so great. What makes this book so good, is that Frances was no ordinary young woman. Her pre-war story is woven in with the Normandy landing and the hospital’s continuing journey through France and then Belgium.

Frances wasn’t Frances at all but was Freidel Yachet Schlanger, born 13 August 1913, in Lodz, Poland. Her father, Dawid, having entered USA on the 22 May that same year. She had an older sister, Chaja and together, they waited with their mother Regina, for the father to earn the money for their US passage. Her parents were of course Jewish, and they had grown up with Cossack pogroms and when WWI broke out, the three females, were stuck in Poland for that “duration”. They starved with the rest and suffered under both Russian and German occupation. Not until 1920 could they rejoin Dawid that had changed his name to David Slanger. And coming to Ellis Island, Freidel was almost sent back to Poland again, since she had developed a severe eye infection during the journey across the ocean.

The family traded one kind of poverty for another. Someone said the streets were paved with gold, like “Fievel” sings in the cartoon film (“There are no cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese”), but meaning that it was paved with freedom. Freedom to make something of yourself. David never got anywhere though. He remained a fruit peddler till he had a stroke in the 1930s. And they met with bad anti-semitism in Boston’s Irish quarters as well as in fancier parts than what they themselves lived in. It came as a shock to me, to read about this! What was sad to read about, was how Regina, who became Eva in America, did not do anything to help contribute to the family income. And how the older daughter Chaja, that became Sarah, called Sally, was allowed to grow up a vain girl, only caring about lipstick and finding a husband. She married as soon as she could an started having the three sons she would end up having.

Freidel who was re-named Frances, was of another kind. She tried her hardest to make something of herself, without any encouragement from home. T. said that it sounded like she and I very much had the same experiences in that respect. And I agree. I know exactly what it is like when your mother doesn’t want you to study but only cares about you growing up quickly so you can go out and get a job and help support. I never did. I went against my mother. But Frances didn’t. She tried to do both. From an early age, she wanted to be a writer, just like myself. But she was discouraged at home. Teased by all children for reading, writing and seeking solitude, just like I was. Poor Frances also had to fight her teachers  on top of everything else. They were not impressed with her immigrant English writings. She struggled on though, writing, helping her father on his fruit peddling routes and acting as go between since her parents never learned anything but Yiddish. It took her forever to graduate from high school since she had to help more and more with her father’s job. And then he had a stroke that prevented him from working. She needed to work in a factory instead of fulfilling her other dream, of becoming a nurse. Finally she had to go behind her parents’ backs and her culture, religion and  everything, to fulfill that dream. Nursing was considered a “Christian Calling. For pork eaters.” The family lost their income, and noone suggested Eva or Sally taking up a job instead, did they??? But Frances got her nursing degree against all odds. She even signed up for joining the army in November 1941, right before Pearl Harbor. Only problem was that her father had another stroke and she could not make herself go. This poor girl was always drawn between her parents and what she felt was the right thing to do. The latter always won the battle, but after a lot of heart ache. In 1943, she did join once and for all, and did not back out.

She trained in four different camps and then sailed for England, saying goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, for good it turned out. On the 10 June 1944, she set foot in Normandy and was met by dead bodies and wounds noone had been able to prepare the nurses and doctors for in America! What makes this book three times as interesting is that while Bob Welch tells her story, he tells her fellow Jews’ story as well. When something happens in Frances life, he documents what Hitler is up to in Europe. What happens in her Lodz ghetto, to her extended family. And on the day that she lands in Normandy, he describes what happens in the little village of Oradour-sur-Glane, far away from Normandy. The 10 June 1944, the village that had been technically German since 1940, saw German soldiers for the first time! A company of “the Reich”, comes in and kills all the children, women and men they can find. For reasons unknown even today! An entire village killed in hours!

Only four nurses of the 18 that came ashore that day, were alive when the book was written. The 45th Field Hospital never have had a re-union. And still, Bob Welch was able to puzzle together what happened to the company for the next four months. Frances was an oddity in the company. She did not fit in. Not when it came to telling jokes, doing social things. But when it came to nursing, THEN she was noticed by everyone. She was 200% devoted to her job. She loved and cared for every soldier and patient that came her way. She would not put up with fellow nurses and doctors that did not feel the same way. And she found a kindred spirit, in a gigantic doctor of 250 pounds, called “Tiny” Schwarz. Another Jew from Boston who had had to fight hard to be there as well. They were both perfectionist and totally devoted to their calling.

What put Frances on the map? What made Bob Welch write about her? This woman stand out because of everything she had had to go through up to that point. But also her personality being so different. But what put Frances on the map, was a letter she wrote from Belgium, during a stormy night the 20th October 1944. She wrote to Stars & Stripes, the soldier newspaper during WWII, that was distributed to all services around the world. And they used it for their editorial. Her letter touched the heart strings of all soldiers! She said that they all praised the nurses, but she wanted to praise the soldiers. How they didn’t complain as patients but wanted to know how their best friend was doing. How they tried a cheerful flirtatious hello, no matter how badly wounded they were. Soldiers loved her letter. And they wrote thousands of letters to her via the newspaper. Only, on the next night, the 21st, something unexpected happened to Frances. They were in a place that was considered so safe, that no foxholes had been dug for the company to dive in to, in case of artillery shelling. That night, the Germans started to shell the hospital camp, that they knew fully well, was located there. A shell hit the tent that Frances was sharing with three other nurses. Shrapnel hit her in her abdomen and all the way in to her spine. All her collegues, that rushed to her side, knew that she could not survive, but her friend “Tiny” still pulled on his surgical gloves to do his best. Instead he could only hold her in his arms while she whispered “oh…my…poor…mother” and then died. Typically, all the enlisted men regretted being mean to her and liking her so little. Noone knew at that point about her letter. It was published even though she had died one day after writing it, and then they had to publish  two weeks later, that the author of the famous letter, had been killed in action. The first nurse to die in the ETO.

She was not miss popular at all, but everyone looked upon her as an inspiration and as a heroine. But she really has been forgotten! Thousands wrote to the Stars & Stripes again after her death. She was awarded a medal. She was buried in Belgium but in 1947, when her mother was asked if she wanted to have her come home, her mother decided to bring her to Boston. So with lots of other dead soldiers, her body was taken back to the US. Her casket was made to stand on parade on a Belgian square the last night, to remind people, before all the caskets left on a ship. The public in the US was reminded of her deeds, when her casket arrived home, and a square in Boston was named after her. A hospital ship was also named after her, at the end of the war. But all of it, has been forgotten today.

I am not sure, why this book was so very special. If it was the fact that a Jewish woman went against tradition and decided to do something so patriotic as going out in a war, that in part was fought against her people or race, if it is not wrong to call it that. Or if it was because, as the author said, she always was “that other person in the photo”. In a way, she was a nobody. She wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t particularly smart. She wasn’t really amusing or funny. She was an ordinary, grey mouse in many people’s eyes. And yet, she had a hidden part of herself, that few took the chance to get to know. Maybe I loved the book so much because I recognised myself in her. I know what it is to be an outsider. Someone that people find boring. A grey mouse that stay in the background. But when I have decided to do something, I do it 200% and as perfect as I can. And I do get upset when people around me do not do their part in the same manner, with the same devotion. And THAT gives you enemies! In that one letter, she poured out her innermost feelings, and it touched everyone. May you rest in peace Freidel Yachet Schlanger! Now when I know about you, I WILL NOT FORGET YOU!

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