Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story

Published by Syracuse University with support from Remember the Women Institute, the book is an expansion of the original edition of Gemma’s 1961 memoir.

Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story, a new expanded edition of My Story, a memoir by Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, was published by Syracuse University Press in Spring 2007. Gemma was the sister of former New York City (1933-1944) Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and she was held as a political hostage in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel edited Gluck’s memoir, adding a prologue and epilogue. She also included an appendix with letters written between Gemma and Fiorello between 1945 and 1947, as well as visuals that trace Gemma’s life story. The Remember the Women Institute and the Fiorello H. LaGuardia Foundation provided partial support for the publication.

Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s original memoir, My Story, edited by S. L. Shneiderman and published in 1961, has long been out of print. While the focus is on Gemma’s experience in Ravensbrück, it is much more than a Holocaust memoir. It begins with the great wave of immigration to the United States from Europe in the 1880s, and follows the family to army posts in Dakota Territory and Arizona. It also traces the family history of the La Guardias, including the background of Gemma and Fiorello’s Jewish mother, Irene Coen La Guardia.

Gemma and her family returned to Italy in the early twentieth century, when she was in her twenties. Fiorello went back to New York to earn a law degree and launch a political career, but Gemma remained in Europe and married a Hungarian Jewish man. Living in Budapest in 1944, she was arrested by the Nazis. 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. Gemma’s memoir is a story of a wise and strong woman who remained optimistic and resourceful, even when life was much less than fair. She died in 1962 and was survived by two daughters.

Dr. Saidel also curated a related exhibition at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, which ran from December 2007 through January 2008.

The book is available through Syracuse University Press
Paper $16.95 – 9780815608615,  eBook – 9780815608431

Hadassah Magazine

Review by Gloria Goldreich
February 2008 Vol. 89 No. 6

Gemma and Fiorello La Guardia were the children of an Italian Jewish mother and a bandmaster in the United States Army.

Gemma, who did not practice Judaism, married Herman Gluck, a Hungarian Jew, and made her home in Budapest. When the Nazis swept through Hungary, the Glucks were arrested on the orders of Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler in reprisal against her brother, Fiorella La Guardia, mayor of New York, who was actively anti-Nazi. Separated from her husband, who later died in Mauthausen, Gemma was interned at Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp, as were her daughter and her infant grandson, who were held in a separate barrack.

As a political hostage, she was able to roam the camp and witness the full extent of Nazi brutality—its random cruelty and sadism. She also registered acts of kindness and compassion among the prisoners, some of whom she saw as heroines; they shared their meager rations and ragged bits of clothing and improvised amusements for the children. Throughout her ordeal, she remained strong and optimistic, vowing that if she were to survive she would record her observations.

Miraculously, Gemma did survive. Reunited with her daughter and her grandson, she contacted her brother, then director of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA). La Guardia agreed to help her, but asserted (somewhat self-righteously) in a letter, included in the appendix, that her “case was the same as that of hundreds of thousands of displaced people” and “no exceptions can be made.”

“The Little Flower,” as he was nicknamed, died not long after his sister arrived in New York. He made no provision for her, and she lived in very reduced circumstances until her death in 1962.

Rochelle Saidel, who edited this new edition with care, has given us a portrait of a remarkable woman who persevered through tragic circumstances. Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s story, written the year before she died, is her legacy, fulfilling the promise she made to herself during her dark days at Ravensbrück.

The Jewish Exponent
Pain and Triumph: The Journey of a New York Mayor’s Family

by Robert Leiter, Literary Editor
January 31, 2008

When the book Fiorello’s Sister appeared in my office, the thought flashed through my mind that, yes, Fiorello La Guardia, the beloved mayor of New York City during the 1930s and ’40s, known endearingly to his supporters as the “Little Flower,” had had Jewish ancestry somewhere down the line. I assumed that this point was the reason why the book had been sent to me, and that this facet of his life would be at the center of the text. I then put the slim paperback on top of my “to do” pile and didn’t question any of my assumptions until I picked the work up again months later to read in earnest.

How wrong I was about the story this brief, but event-filled, memoir has to tell! The fact that the La Guardias had some Jewish blood (the mayor’s mother was part of a famed Italian Jewish family) was only the tip of the iceberg, and I was truly startled to discover how much more there was to this heartfelt testimony written by his older sibling, Gemma La Guardia Gluck.

This edition of Fiorello’s Sister, published by Syracuse University Press, is, in fact, a reissue of the original, which first appeared in 1961, in a version that had been carefully “edited” by the Yiddish journalist S.L. Shneiderman. This new volume has been repackaged by scholar Rochelle G. Saidel, who tracked down various versions of the work — both published and in typescript — before approving publication of this new and expanded text.

A Life Filled With Drama

As Saidel explains in her prefatory remarks, Gemma La Guardia was nowhere near as famous as her brother, Fiorello, but her life was filled with drama.

Writes the scholar, who has done considerable original research on the Holocaust: “Gemma’s lifetime spanned from the great wave of immigration to the United States in the 1880s until John F. Kennedy’s presidency. By the time she died in New York City in November 1962, she had been a political hostage of the Nazis in Ravensbrück concentration camp and a post-World War II displaced person and refugee. Most of her memoir is a vivid eyewitness account of her ordeal during and immediately after the Holocaust. However, there is much more to Gemma’s story. She describes the United States at the end of the 19th century and the various places she lived as her U.S. Army bandleader father changed headquarters.”

The La Guardia parents actually set sail for America on their wedding day in 1880 (Achille La Guardia was originally from Foggia near Naples while his bride, Irene Coen, was a native of Trieste). The newlyweds made their first American home in Greenwich Village. Gemma was their oldest child, born in 1881. Fiorello was born a year later, and the baby, Richard, arrived in 1885, after the family had resettled in the American West.

Gemma’s cornet-playing father was a member of the 11th Infantry of the U.S. Army and was first posted at Fort Sully in the Dakota Territory. Gemma may have been just a small child at the time, but she writes that “the wild and woolly West made a vivid impression” upon her. In fact, her mother, left alone in their isolated house when her husband was away on duty, took charge immediately and even became good friends with the Indians who lived nearby.

“They brought all kinds of gifts,” writes Gemma, “such as handmade blankets, moccasins, beads, and, in turn, she gave them sugar and other staples. The Indians spoke a Spanish dialect, Mother spoke Italian to them, and in this manner they understood each other very well. Mother always said, ‘No one is so well protected here as I am.’ And she was right — the Indians loved her and would never have done her any harm.”

The 11th Infantry was then sent to Sackett’s Harbor, near Watertown, N.Y., where Gemma and her brothers started elementary school. The standing military procedure was that the regiment was to move every three years, first sent somewhere on the frontier and then to a more settled region. So after New York state, the family wound up in Whipple Barracks near Prescott, Ariz., a period that Gemma describes as “the happiest years of our youth.” It was here that she and her siblings attended high school.

The family moved several more times, and there were tense moments after the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor. The La Guardias had just arrived in St. Louis, and once the country’s “war jitters” became intense, the 11th Infantry was ordered to Mobile, Ala., though family members had to remain in Missouri.

Just before the soldiers were to be shipped out to Cuba, Gemma’s father became ill after eating contaminated canned meat and was sent back to St. Louis. During the period of his recuperation, his military service came to an end — the year was 1901 — and the elder La Guardia then decided to return to Europe with his family, settling in Trieste.

So began the second European phase of the family’s history. Fiorello was with them at the time, and Gemma writes about his political ambitions and how his job at the U.S. Consulate in Fiume, which was then part of Hungary, inspired him to return to the United States to continue his education and pursue a career in politics.

Gemma and her mother stayed in Europe after Fiorello’s departure in 1906 (their father had died by then), and she eventually married one of her students — she taught English — a man named Herman Gluck, a Hungarian Jew, whom she describes as homely but endearingly kind and good-natured.

Gemma, her mother and her new husband then moved to Budapest, where the couple started their family. Yolanda was born in 1911 and Irene in 1918. Yolanda stayed in Budapest, where she married and had a son, while Irene returned to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II. Gemma discusses in detail the splendid life she led in Budapest before the Nazis invaded and changed her family’s fortunes irrevocably in the spring of 1944.

Despite all the colorful tales Gemma has to tell about the American West, the real heart of her memoir comes with the Nazi invasion. Eichmann and Himmler ordered her arrest, and she was kept as a political hostage because she was the sister of the famous mayor of New York City.

She was soon deported, along with her husband, to Mauthausen in Austria; then she was sent to the hell of Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp just 50 miles from Berlin.

These are the book’s most harrowing — and perhaps most important — pages. The memoirist gives an unflinching picture of one of the most infamous camps the Nazis ever created. Gemma’s special status kept her from having to do slave labor, but she suffered from the starvation diet and the other punishments inflicted on all inmates. Still, many survivors attested to her strength, and how she acted as a model and a guide for many of the women who sought her counsel.

No-Nonsense Philosophy

Not that things improved for her after the war. Gemma was in her 60s when she was sent to Ravensbrück, and continued to suffer in postwar Berlin as a displaced person. It took her two years, despite her special “status” as “Fiorello’s sister,” to be cleared and sent to America, where she was reunited with her brother.

As it turned out, Fiorello died of cancer in 1947, soon after Gemma’s return. She then went to reside in a low-income housing project in Queens, where she remained for the rest of her life, cared for by both her daughters and her grandchildren. (She only learned after the war that her husband had died in Mauthausen.)

Gemma is by no means a polished, professional writer. Those seeking out this special work should not expect a stellar prose style; she was a strong, intelligent woman and her clear, unaffected prose reflects her stance toward life and her simple, no-nonsense philosophy.

After more than a 40 year absence, it’s good to have her memoir, filled with both sadness and joy, back in print for a new generation of readers to marvel over.

The Jewish Daily FORWARD
Ravensbrück’s Famous Survivor Memoir
by Jon Kalish
June 26, 2007

Back in the 1980s, a number of Holocaust scholars and “people who should know better” told historian Rochelle Saidel that Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp located about 60 miles north of Berlin, was used for political prisoners and that “there wasn’t a Jewish story there.” Saidel proved them wrong by writing what many consider to be the definitive book on the estimated 20,000 Jewish prisoners that passed through the camp.
Among them was one prisoner, the camp’s most famous survivor, whose story struck a particular chord with Saidel: Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of legendary New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Now, with Saidel’s help, Gluck’s memoir — first published in 1961 — is being re-released by Syracuse University Press under the title “Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story.”

Born in New York to an Italian Jewish mother and a “lapsed Catholic” father, Gluck and her famous brother grew up in the United States. During their childhood, though, they joined their parents on trips back to Trieste, Italy, where their mother’s family had deep Jewish roots. In 1900, with the children grown into young adults, the family moved back to Italy. Fiorello returned to New York to attend law school, after which he ran for a number of elected offices. Gemma stayed in Europe with her mother and taught English in Trieste, where she ended up marrying one of her students and, eventually, getting caught in the maw of World War II.

Gluck was 64 when she was released from Ravensbrück in the spring of 1945. Saidel is 65.

“I think that is part of why I feel a great affinity for her now,” said Saidel in an interview with the Forward. “At my age, I can’t stand for a very long time in a museum and look at a painting without my leg hurting. And then you read that they’re standing there for five hours in an appel,” she said, referring to the concentration camp roll call.

During her eight months in Ravensbrück, Gluck endured a diet of turnips cooked in potato peelings. She promised herself that if she survived, she would tell the world about the camp. So Gluck resolved to observe life in Ravensbrück as best she could. She remembered the stench of the crematory, and prisoners who looked like “walking skeletons.” She remembered the babies who suffocated because they were crammed five or six to a crib, and she remembered the Polish woman housed on the “Rabbit Block” who had limbs amputated by Nazi doctors in “experiments.”

Although the Nazis considered Gluck to be Jewish, she did not think of herself as a Jew — despite the fact that her maternal grandmother was a member of the Luzzattos, a prominent Italian Jewish family active in the Italian unification effort and the rabbinical college in Padua. In her memoir, Gluck mentions a woman in Ravensbrück who begged to take off the yellow patch labeling her as a Jew, arguing that she may have been married to a Jew but she herself was not Jewish. Gluck was angered by the inmate’s plea, declaring in her memoir, “I have been married for thirty-six years to such a good Jewish husband, I am proud to wear their sign.”

In April 1945, Gluck was reunited with her daughter and grandson, who were also imprisoned at Ravensbrück. There, she had lost 44 pounds in less than a year. Her toddler grandson looked so weak, she thought, “Where am I going to bury this baby?”

The three were released in Berlin, just prior to its liberation by the Russians. Gluck writes in her memoir that the Soviets were “violating girls and women of all ages.” A year later, she read a newspaper article that revealed the fate of her husband, Herman, a Hungarian Jew who had perished in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Despite the fact that she was the sister of a powerful American politician, it would be another year before Gluck, her daughter and grandson made it to New York. They arrived in May 1947, four months before her beloved Fiorello died of cancer. She spent the rest of her life in a low-income public housing project in Queens, built by the LaGuardia Administration. Gluck died in 1962, about a year after her memoir was first published.

The Jewish Week
“Mayor LaGuardia’s Sister”
by Sandee Brawarsky – Jewish Week Book Critic
April 13, 2007

Newly re-released memoir details Gemma LaGuardia Gluck’s experiences at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Among New Yorkers for whom the name LaGuardia means more than an airport, many are still surprised to hear that the former mayor had a Jewish mother, and even more are surprised to learn that his sister was interned by the Nazis in a concentration camp.

Her story unfolds in “Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma LaGuardia Gluck’s Story” by Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, edited by Rochelle Saidel (Syracuse University Press). Her life was full of courageous and compassionate acts, but she writes with humility along with a graceful directness.

While Gluck details her time at the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp with great clarity — she is believed to be the only American-born woman interned by the Nazis — the book is about more than that. Her life spanned the great wave of immigration to the United States in the 1880s to the presidency of John F. Kennedy. She grew up in New York City and the Old West, later led a cosmopolitan life in Budapest and lived her last years in a municipal housing project in Long Island City, Queens, built during her brother’s term as mayor of New York City.

Gluck wrote the memoir soon after she arrived in the United States in 1947; the book was published in 1961, although it has long been out of print. This new edition is expanded to include a new prologue and epilogue, previously unpublished photos, explanatory footnotes and recently discovered letters between Gluck and her brother, written between July 1945 and May 1947. Also included is a copy of a document referring to her arrest by the Nazis, submitted as evidence at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Gluck was born in 1881 in Greenwich Village, the daughter of parents who had emigrated from Italy the previous year. Her mother, Irene Coen LaGuardia, was the daughter of a prominent Italian Jewish family, the Luzattos, and her father, Achille Luigi Carlo LaGuardia, was Catholic but listed no religion on their marriage certificate.

In the U.S., the family moved around a lot, as her father was a bandmaster in the U.S. Army; their first posting was in the Dakota Territory, where Irene LaGuardia befriended and communicated in Italian with the American Indians, who knew a dialect of Spanish. The LaGuardias later lived in upstate New York, Arizona and then Missouri, and the family traveled to Europe during Army furloughs. When Achille LaGuardia finished his service, the family moved back to Italy where they opened a tourist hotel. Gemma studied languages and her brother Fiorello studied the books he brought with him from America, always intending to return there. He was hired by the American consul in Budapest and later as consul for immigration in Fiume (then Hungary, later Italy, now part of Croatia).

After Achille LaGuardia’s death, Fiorello returned to the U.S., first working as a sales clerk and then as an interpreter at Ellis Island while attending college and law school at night. A younger brother also left for America and settled in Trenton, N.J. Gemma taught English in Fiume, married one of her pupils, a Hungarian Jew, and moved to Budapest.

In June 1944, Gemma and her husband Herman Gluck were arrested in an order from Eichmann, undoubtedly an act of retaliation for the anti-Nazi activities of her brother, as S.L Shneiderman explained in the preface to the original edition. Two months earlier, Mayor LaGuardia, who was outspoken in condemning the Nazis and predicting their downfall, led a mass demonstration of Polish Jews on the steps of City Hall commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The Glucks were taken to the Mauthausen concentration camp where they were separated. Herman Gluck was killed there, although Gemma didn’t learn of his fate until after the war. Moved to Ravensbrück, which is about 50 miles from Berlin, she wasn’t a regular prisoner but a political hostage, held in a special section for prominent families. The niece of Charles de Gaulle was also held in the camp.

By the time the camp was liberated in 1945, more than 132,000 women had been imprisoned there; less than 20,000 survived. Gluck was over 60 when she arrived at the camp. Her work assignment was light, but she still suffered starvation and deprivation. Her job was to supervise one of the dining tables (where she had to divide the meager scraps of food into equal portions), and she chose to make her table international, including 34 women of 12 nationalities and several religions. As is evident by her descriptions, she was looked up to by the other women there, some of whom attended her clandestine English classes. She thought of writing something if she got out, so she made sure to notice details and remember them.

In April 1945, as the Allies were approaching, Gluck was reunited with her daughter and baby grandson — she hadn’t known they were being held in the same camp — and the three were sent to Berlin for a possible hostage exchange. There, they met more hardships, as they were abandoned with no identity papers, no money and no way to document where they had been. She was finally able to get word to the Americans who contacted her brother, who had no idea where they were. He worked to get them on the immigration lists. After two years of struggle, they were able to leave, via Denmark, and come to the United States.

“I think I kind of fell in love with Gemma,” Rochelle Saidel tells The Jewish Week in an interview, discussing how she got involved with this book. Saidel, an author and scholar who divides her time between Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Jerusalem and Sao Paolo, Brazil, is founder and director of the Remember the Women Institute, which is dedicated to research in women’s history. She first discovered the published memoir in 1980, when she was doing research for her book, “The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.”

Last year, when Saidel was already working on this edition, she discovered a typed manuscript and page proofs of the book in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History. No one knows when or why the materials were deposited there, perhaps because of a reference to someone Gluck knew at Ravensbrück who helped Rabbi Baeck. Saidel, who has been in close contact with Gluck’s granddaughter, says that the original handwritten manuscript is lost.

Saidel first visited Ravensbrück in 1980, as a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, on a press trip to then East Germany, and she insisted on seeing the women’s camp. Although there was no evidence that Jewish women had been interned at the camp, Saidel began questioning and came to learn that there had in fact been 20,000 Jewish women there, between 1939 and 1945.

Saidel, who is 64 — the same age as Gluck when she was in Ravensbrück — explains that she felt a special connection to her subject.

“Gemma was so brave,” Saidel says. “She took care, and had no ego. Fiorello had the ambition — he wanted to make something of himself. She was just doing what she had to do.”

About two years ago, Saidel appeared on a panel with former Mayor Edward I. Koch and others on the subject of Fiorello LaGuardia and immigration. Koch said something to the effect that if it had been his sister who was interned, he would have gotten her out in a week. Mayor LaGuardia did make contacts on his sister’s behalf, but acted according to regulations, without asking for special favors. He urged his sister to have patience, and finally they were able to leave.

Gluck writes, “Because fate gave me such a famous brother, my life has been full of pride and great happiness, but also of suffering and heartbreak. Being a LaGuardia was the reason for my incarceration in Mauthausen and in Ravensbrück, but ultimately the name LaGuardia saved my life and those of my daughter and grandson.”

“Fiorello’s Sister, Gemma’s Brother,” a public conversation with film and radio clips, was presented at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., on April 24, 2007. The program featured Matilda Raffa Cuomo; Katherine LaGuardia, a grandchild of the late mayor; Rochelle Saidel and actor Tony LoBianco presenting excerpts from the show “Fiorello.”

Used with permission by Sandee Brawarsky