Former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s sister, Gemma La Guardia Gluck, was a political hostage in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp from June 1944 until the spring of 1945. Her baby grandson, Richard Denes, was also there during most of that time. On March 29, 2020, Richard died of COVID-19 in Yonkers, NY.
During her time in Ravensbrück, one of Gemma’s greatest worries was the fate of the other members of her family—her Jewish husband, daughter, son-in-law, and grandson Richard. Like Gemma, they had all been living in Budapest. Gemma did not learn until a few days before her April 15, 1945, liberation that her daughter, Yolanda Gluck Denes, and her grandson, Richard, had also been in the concentration camp since August 1944. Yolanda and Richard, who arrived at the age of five months, had been kept in solitary confinement. When Gemma was reunited with them as they were leaving the camp, she noted that he could not even hold his head up and she thought he was near death. Fourteen-month-old Richard’s head was so wobbly that he could not support himself to sit up. He was unable to grasp anything with his hands, and he had no teeth. “My first thought was: ‘where am I going to bury this baby? He won’t live,'” Gemma wrote in her memoir.
The three of them, all in terrible condition, were sent from Ravensbrück to a Gestapo prison in Berlin. After the Soviet army entered the city and set them free, they stayed in different homes in Berlin that had been damaged during the war. When British, and then American, troops arrived, Gemma was able to get a message to the American authorities, asking them to inform her brother Fiorello that she was there. She was almost immediately overwhelmed by help from American officers, soldiers, and news reporters and able to speak to her brother in New York via the radio. Mayor La Guardia promised he would do everything he could to bring Gemma and her family to the United States, but said he could not make exceptions and her daughter would have to wait her turn in the immigration quota. (Gemma, like Fiorello, had been born in New York, but Yolanda was born in Hungary.) Fiorello arranged for Gemma, Yolanda, and Richard to live in Copenhagen, where conditions were much better than in post-war Berlin. He finally brought them to New York City, where they arrived on May 19, 1947. They resided in public housing in Queens.
At the time of his death from COVID-19, Richard was living in Yonkers, NY. I met him when I was editing a new edition of his grandmother Gemma’s memoir (Syracuse University Press, 2007), and it was obvious that he had never completely recovered from the tragedy of his early years. He is one of the youngest survivors of a Nazi concentration camp. Although he had married, raised four children, taken some college courses, and worked as a computer technician, he was reclusive and seemed reluctant to trust people. He agreed to meet me only because his first cousin and my friend, Gladys McMilleon introduced me to him. His life was not easy, and his end was as tragic as his beginning. Because of COVID-19 there was no possibility of a funeral, except for immediate family. He is survived by his wife Maryann and four children, Michael, Christopher, Joanne, and Anthony, and several grandchildren. Richard Denes, a baby incarcerated in Ravensbrück as the victim of a lethal regime, is among the famous and less known victims of this lethal virus.