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Pain & Triumph

January 31, 2008 By:
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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 memorist 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.

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