(1882 - 1947)
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 Hitlers
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. When Fiorello LaGuardia was elected to Congress in 1922, the first
bill he introduced called for the death penalty for "scavengers"
who supplied tainted food to the military. The bill did not pass, but
LaGuardia never lost his Progressive disgust for government corruption or
the ability of "the interests" to escape justice.
A superb linguist, in 1900 the 18-year-old Fiorello
took his first government post in the American consular corps in Budapest.
Advised that his Jewish roots and lack of a Harvard degree would stunt his
prospects in the diplomatic service, which was very "white
shoe," LaGuardia resigned and 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. Before taking office, LaGuardia called
Hitler a "perverted maniac." In a public address in 1934,
LaGuardia warned, "Part of [Hitlers] program is the complete
annihilation of the Jews in Germany." In 1937, speaking before the
Womens Division of the American Jewish Congress, LaGuardia called for
the creation of a special pavilion at the upcoming New York Worlds
Fair: "a chamber of horrors" for "that brown-shirted
In response, the government-controlled press in Germany
called LaGuardia a "Dirty Talmud Jew," a "shameless Jew
lout" and "a whoremonger." When the German ambassador
protested LaGuardias remarks to Cordell Hull, the U.S. Secretary of
State, Hull explained to the ambassador that, personally, he "very
earnestly deprecate[d] the utterances which have thus given offense to the
German government." Hull had to explain, however, that in America the
mayor of New York was free to speak his mind. Hull complained privately to
President Roosevelt that LaGuardia was poisoning German-American
relations, but Roosevelt asked Hull, "What would you say if I should
say that I agreed completely with LaGuardia?" Several months later,
LaGuardia visited Roosevelt and recorded the following scene:
The president smiled as I entered his office. Then
he extended his right arm and said, "Heil, Fiorello!" I
snapped to attention, extended my right arm and replied, "Heil,
Franklin!" And thats all that was ever said about it.
In May of 1937, news broke of a scandal in six Brooklyn
public high schools in which bootleg contraceptives were being sold to
students. The German press immediately blamed "the Jew
LaGuardia" for this episode of "hair-raising immorality."
LaGuardia fired back he had no response to the charge: the only city
official competent to deal with the German press allegations was the
deputy sanitation commissioner in charge of sewage disposal!
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 Progressives
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, LaGuardias principled position was vindicated.
After the war, LaGuardia became the director general of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) from March 29, 1946 to January 1, 1947, where he joined in the efforts to feed the millions of displaced persons in the aftermath of World War II. In his role as director general, LaGuardia visited several DP camps in Europe.
It was recently discovered that among the millions of Jews who were detained at concentration camps during WWII, it is little known that Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, the sister of New York's illustrious Mayor Fiorello LaGaurdia, was among them.
Jewish Historical Society, Jewish Federation of Rockland Country