Fiorello’s Sister, Gemma’s Brother
An evening of talks, performance, film, and radio nostalgia on the beloved Mayor of New York and his sister Gemma. On the occasion of the publication of Fiorello’s
An evening of talks, performance, film, and radio nostalgia on the beloved Mayor of New York and his sister Gemma. On the occasion of the publication of Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story, the memoir by Gemma La Guardia Gluck, edited by Rochelle G. Saidel (Syracuse University Press).
Opening remarks by the Consul General of Italy Hon. Antonio Bandini and Marjorie B. Tiven, Commissioner, City of New York.
Speakers: Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Katherine LaGuardia, Rochelle G. Saidel. And a special appearance by Tony Lo Bianco presenting excerpts from the show Fiorello.
Mayor La Guardia’s “Talks to the People” and “Comic Readings” on WNYC are a well-known part of New York City history. However, few people know that in July 1945 the “Little Flower” also used his public passion with the radio to connect to Berlin and speak with his sister Gemma, who had survived Ravensbrück concentration camp with her daughter and baby grandson.
The memoir of Gemma La Guardia
At the core of Gemma La Guardia’s memoir is the recollection of her deportation to Ravensbrück as a political hostage of the Nazis. Her story is set against the backdrop of the Italian and Jewish stories of their parents, Triestine Irene Luzzatto Coen and Sicilian Achille La Guardia, their coming to the United States in 1880, the family’s return to Trieste in 1898, and Fiorello’s pursuit of his passion for politics.
Fiorello LaGuardia’s involvement in anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi activities and his support of the efforts of the Jewish Labor Committee during WWII is a relatively known matter and has been the subject of many studies.
Less known however is his family story during the Holocaust and the personal dilemmas raised by the deportation – in 1944- of his beloved sister Gemma to the Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbruck.
The publication of Gemma’s memoir edited by Dr. Rochelle Saidel (Syracuse University Press, April 2007) and a program sponsored by Centro Primo Levi in the 60th anniversary of the death of Fiorello LaGuardia explore the family background, the political passion, and the relation with his sister during World War II until her arrival to the US and his death in 1947.
A low profile, timid, and witty woman, Gemma LaGuardia had remained in Trieste with their mother, Irene Cohen Luzzatti, after Fiorello decided to resettle in New York and enroll in law school.
The Luzzatti’s were a prominent Jewish family of intellectuals, religious and political leaders, with close ties to post-unification circles and liberal groups. Gemma narrates to have felt equal influence from her father Sicilian heritage and her mother’s Triestine Jewish background.
After marrying an Hungarian Jew, she moved to Budapest in 1915. There, in 1943 the war and the outbreak of anti-Semitic persecution surprised the couple, their daughter Yolanda, her husband, and their infant child.
While the two man were taken to Mathausen and murdered, Gemma, her daughter, and grandson were separately imprisoned in Ravensbruck and began an odyssey during which Gemma proved herself a woman of great strength, humanity, and resourcefulness.
Survived to tell the story, Gemma began her recollection with the great wave of immigration to the United States from Europe in the 1880’s, that had brought her parents to the shores of America and followed with their return to Trieste in the early 1920’s until her imprisonment in Budapest in 1944. In addition to her incarceration in Ravensbrück, Gemma details the often untold story of the extreme hardships of living as a displaced person in post-World War II Berlin. She also describes how her daughter and infant grandson were reunited with her as she was sent out of the concentration camp, and how the three of them struggled for two years to immigrate to the United States.
During the month spent in Berlin Gemma tried to make contact with Fiorello and they were finally able to communicate through the Red Cross. On 31 October 1945, Fiorello wrote to her: “I will provide for you and do the very best that conditions will permit. You must be patient. . . . You have lost your citizenship, therefore that is something that cannot be remedied….I am trying my best to have you sent either to Sweden or England or Portugal or Italy. There are many insurmountable obstacles. Again, if they do it for one they will have to do it for hundreds of thousands….As to your returning to the United States, I am doing all I can, but I cannot get Yolanda and her child in. You do not want to leave them alone. Unless the law changes, this may continue for sometime. If it can be done, it will be done.”
Shortly thereafter Fiorello and Gemma were finally able to speak in person through the channels of the Radio of New York.
Fiorello La Guardia
Standing only a little over five feet tall Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s impact on New York City far outweighed his physical presence. Beginning as a Congressman representing Greenwich Village, LaGuardia soon received a reputation for being a fiery speaker and an untiring advocate of his constituents. In his first bid for the City’s top position he was defeated. However by the 1933 election, events in New York made his election on the “fusion” ticket a sure thing. Serving from 1934 to 1945 he was one of only three modern day mayors to serve 3 consecutive terms in office.
He guided the City thorough the turbulent and difficult period of the Great Depression and later oversaw the City’s transformation into a vital component of The United States efforts in World War II. Propelled by boundless energy, LaGuardia initiated numerous reforms to combat urban poverty, rebuild decaying infrastructure, put thousand of New Yorkers back to work and laid the groundwork for what would become modern day New York.
Fiorello LaGuardia chose not to wear his Jewish heritage on his sleeve. In fact, he allowed the public to identify him as Italian, not Jewish, even under the most tempting of political circumstances. When issues of Jewish interest came up in New York or national politics, however, the “Little Flower” was an ardent advocate for Jewish rights. As mayor of New York, he was one of Hitler’s most outspoken opponents.
LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village in 1882 to Achille Luigi Carlo LaGuardia, a Catholic, and Irene Luzzato Coen, who had been raised in an observant Jewish home in Trieste. In 1880, the couple emigrated to the United States. After their third child was born, Achille joined the U.S. Army. The family was sent to remote outposts in South Dakota and Arizona. In 1898, Achille became gravely ill from eating “embalmed” rations supplied to the Army and died four years later.
A superb linguist, in 1900 the 18-year-old Fiorello took his first government post in the American consular corps in Fiume and Budapest. As he saw no prospect of career in the small border town, in the 1906 returned to New York in 1906 to work for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children and as a translator for the U.S. Immigration Service while attending New York University Law School. On graduation, he opened a practice that specialized in protecting immigrant workers in the garment industry. Although he never earned much, LaGuardia won numerous friends and a great reputation among the immigrant Jewish garment workers and peddlers of the Lower East Side by representing them in court, free of charge.
In 1916, running as a Republican, LaGuardia challenged the incumbent Congressman from the Lower East Side, a Tammany-backed saloonkeeper named Farley. Speaking to crowds in Yiddish, Italian and Serbo-Croatian, LaGuardia defeated Farley by a narrow margin, becoming the first Italian-American elected to Congress.
In 1922, Tammany ran a Jewish candidate against LaGuardia and circulated a flyer calling LaGuardia “a pronounced anti-Semite and Jew-hater.” Advised that he should publicly proclaim that his mother was Jewish, LaGuardia rejected the tactic as “self-serving.” Instead, he challenged his opponent to debate him in Yiddish – an offer his opponent could not accept. LaGuardia won re-election.
Defeated for re-election in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932, LaGuardia successfully ran for mayor of the City of New York in 1933. Once in office, he became an implacable foe of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In a public address in 1934, LaGuardia warned, “Part of [Hitler’s] program is the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany.” In 1937, speaking before the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, LaGuardia called for the creation of a special pavilion at the upcoming New York World’s Fair: “a chamber of horrors” for “that brown-shirted fanatic.”
In the same year LaGuardia became involved with a labor group linked to the Jewish Labor Committee and including Bruce Vladeck, David Dubinsky, and Luigi Antonini that mobilized support for anti-fascist and moderate socialist leaders in Europe. His guests for one of the main fund-raiser for this cause was Giuseppe Emanuele Modigliani, brother of Amedeo and one of the members of Parliament forced into exile by Mussolini.
In response, the government-controlled press in Germany called LaGuardia a “Dirty Talmud Jew,” a “shameless Jew lout” and “a whoremonger.”
In 1938, after the division of Czechoslovakia and Kristallnacht, LaGuardia stepped up his attacks on the Hitler regime. At a rally of 20,000 anti-Fascists in Madison Square Garden, LaGuardia proclaimed himself unable “adequately to describe the brutality of [Hitler] and his government” and called the Nazi regime a great threat to world peace. Historians David and Jackie Esposito have written, “In the face of large scale indifference to human rights violations abroad and growing isolationism at home . . . LaGuardia reasserted a Progressive’s faith in the rule of reason and the power of enlightened public opinion to face up to the Nazis and confront Hitler.” When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, LaGuardia’s principled position was vindicated.