Fiorello H. LaGuardia, affectionately known as the “Little Flower,” was mayor of New York from 1933 to 1945, having served earlier as a Republican member of Congress.
He was well-known for the progressive and pro-labor reforms he instituted as well as for his valiant battles against corruption. During 1946, he served as director general of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He resigned at the end of 1946 because of illness and died in September, 1947.
LaGuardia, born in New York in 1882, was the second of three children whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1880. Their father came from Naples and their mother from Trieste. She was a descendant of a well-known Italian-Jewish family.
LaGuardia’s older sister, Gemma, was the author of this autobiographical memoir, originally published in 1961 as one of the earliest descriptions of life during the Holocaust.
LaGuardia’s father was a bandmaster in the United States army. This entailed many moves for the family as he was transferred from one military post to another.
During his furloughs, the family visited Europe and when he retired, they settled in Trieste where he died in 1904. By that time, LaGuardia had become the United States Consul’s agent for immigration in Fiume.
Eager for advancement, he returned to the United States in 1906 where he earned a law degree and started his successful political career. Gemma gave English lessons and married one of her students, Herman Gluck, a Jew who was not especially observant.
They moved to Budapest where Gemma’s mother died in 1915. They lived very well until Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. Arrested by the Nazis, they were separated and, as Gemma eventually learned, her husband was killed by the Nazis.
She was sent to Ravensbruck, a large concentration camp for women, where she was badly treated except that she was spared some of the worst horrors because she was known to be LaGuardia’s sister.
There was apparently some expectation that perhaps she could be exchanged for a German prisoner or that if she were killed, there would be reprisals against Germans in New York.
Eventually, she was sent to Berlin where there were further hardships after the Russians occupied the city. LaGuardia finally made contact with Gemma and, in 1947, she sailed for New York. They were reunited but by that time, he was quite ill and he died a few months later. Gemma died in 1962, in low-income municipal housing that was built under her brother’s term as mayor.
The editor of this re-issue of Gemma’s chronicle, Rochelle G. Saidel, had included some material from the narrative in her book, The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Saidel had used the out-of-print edition and was delighted to discover the original manuscript in the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History in New York. This revised version is based on that document. It contains a good deal of useful information and is a welcome addition to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the Founding Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
ROCHELLE SAIDEL, editor of “Fiorello’s Sister,” will speak along with author Peter Zheutlin during “Biography,” moderated by Jane Henderson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on Wed., Nov. 7 at 1 p.m.
Admission: $15 or free with festival series ticket.