On March 6, 1937, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull apologized to the German Embassy for the insulting remarks about Adolf Hitler made by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia three days earlier. La Guardia, speaking on March 3 to the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, had proposed building a “chamber of horrors” at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Hizzoner suggested that the pavilion have, “as a climax … a figure of that brown-shirted fanatic who is now menacing the peace of the world.”
La Guardia was born in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1882 to an Italian Catholic father and an Italian Jewish mother. Irene Luzzato Coen, of Trieste, was a descendant of the Luzzatto family, which boasted many rabbis and Jewish scholars. He was raised Episcopalian but made no effort to hide his Jewish ancestry, and from early on he denounced the Third Reich’s treatment of Jews. In 1931, for example, while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, La Guardia (who was mayor from 1934 to 1945), warned in a speech about “Hitlerites mov[ing] in and tak[ing] control of the government” in Germany. Two years later, he supported a U.S. boycott of German products and called Hitler a “perverted maniac” whose program included “the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany.”
After La Guardia’s World’s Fair remark, the German Embassy complained to the State Department. In their reports of the incident, Germany’s government-controlled newspapers referred to La Guardia as “New York’s gangster-in-chief” and a “dirty Talmud Jew.”
Hull sought to placate Germany, but as he noted in a public statement, “In this country, the right of freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution to every citizen and is cherished as part of the national heritage.” Nevertheless, the secretary of state made clear that, personally, “I very earnestly deprecate the utterances which have given offense to the German Government.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt mentioned the incident in a cabinet meeting, also on March 6. In “The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes,” which was published posthumously, the secretary of the interior reported that Roosevelt turned to Hull and asked him, “What would you say if I should say that I agreed completely with La Guardia?” In response, Hull said he believed Roosevelt should reprimand La Guardia. According to Ickes, “The President, still with a grin on his face, touched his left wrist lightly with the first two fingers of his right hand and remarked to Hull: ‘We will chastise him like that.’”
In 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary, the mayor’s sister, Gemma La Guardia Gluck, who had settled in Europe as an adult, was arrested with her Hungarian husband, Herman Gluck, in Budapest, and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Herman died there. Gemma was taken to the Ravensbruck labor camp and was held by the Germans, who knew the identity of her brother was, until the war’s end. For a variety of technical reasons, including the fact that she lost her U.S. citizenship when she married Herman, Gemma was unable to return to the United States for some time. She was finally repatriated, together with her daughter and grandson, a few months before La Guardia’s death in September 1947.
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