In 1922, Republican New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia ran for reelection and was opposed by a Tammany-backed Jewish candidate. Sensing the opportunity to drive a wedge between La Guardia and his Jewish supporters, the opposition circulated a flier in the Jewish tenements calling La Guardia “a pronounced Jew hater.” La Guardia fought back in a most unusual manner. He imposed one condition, namely, that the entire debate be spoken exclusively in Yiddish. Completely stunned, his opponent could not accept the proposal. La Guardia, nicknamed the Little Flower (he was 5’2”) won reelection. La Guardia was born in 1882 in Greenwich Village to his parents of different religions. His Catholic father was Achille Luigi Carlo La Guardia and his observant Jewish mother was Irene Lazzato Coen. To maintain their heritage within the home, Achille spoke Italian to Fiorello while Irene spoke to him in Yiddish. La Guardia became fluent in both languages. Fiorello had earned a great reputation as a young attorney among the Lower East Side’s immigrant Jewish garment workers by representing many of them in court without charge. He also became an early advocate for Jewish rights.
In 1934, as the newly elected Mayor of New York City, La Guardia became an early, staunch foe of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime, calling Hitler a “perverted maniac.” La Guardia warned in 1934 that Hitler’s program is the “complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany.” The German government called La Guardia a “Dirty Talmud Jew.” On March 6, 1937, Secretary of State Cordell Hull complained to President Roosevelt, saying that the New York Mayor’s conduct was hurting German-American relations and Hull also apologized to the German Embassy. Roosevelt not only refused to silence La Guardia, but he privately agreed with him.
In 1937, a scandal erupted involving the sale of bootleg contraceptives to students at several New York high schools. The German press blamed the “Jew La Guardia” for this immorality. La Guardia fired back that the only city official competent to deal with the German press allegation was the Deputy Sanitation Commissioner in charge of sewage disposal. In 1938, at a rally at Madison Square Garden of 20,000 Jewish supporters against Hitler and his Fascist anti-Semitic government, La Guardia called Hitler and his Nazi regime a great threat to world peace in the face of indifference to human rights violations abroad and growing isolation at home. He urged the world to face up to the Nazis and confront Hitler. Unfortunately, the world was not yet ready to listen to the Little Flower. One of the most beloved and colorful American politicians, La Guardia is fondly remembered reading the comic strip over the radio to New York/New Jersey children (including myself as a child) during the citywide newspaper strike.
Sources MJL Staff, My Jewish Learning – La Guardia 1 Hitler 0 – American Jewish Historical Society,” New York Daily News, By David J. Krajicek, “Mayor La Guardia Stood Tall at 5-foot-2 Against Hitler’s Nazi Regime as Most American Pals Clammed Up in Denial,” :Haaretz.com, by David B. Green, This Day in Jewish History.