Transatlantic phone calls were virtually unheard of in the 1930s. Few people had private home phones in the first place, and those who did rarely called “long distance” to another part of their home state.

Looking through newspaper archives from 1933, however, we found evidence of a most unusual call placed from Chicago to Riga, Latvia, portraying an urgent request from the daughter of the non-Jewish mayor of Chicago to the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

Regardless of its fascinating circumstances, the call itself was so rare that newspapers found it newsworthy to report on the sound quality, the length, and of course the astronomical cost of the conversation.

Here’s how it came about:

Shortly after the Sixth Rebbe was forced to leave the Soviet Union in late 1927, where he had been a constant thorn in the side of the Bolsheviks’ Communist utopia, he embarked on an ambitious trip.

The Rebbe's arrival in Chicago merited a photograph on the back of the Feb. 10, 1930, Chicago Daily Tribune and an extensive article within its pages.
The Rebbe's arrival in Chicago merited a photograph on the back of the Feb. 10, 1930, Chicago Daily Tribune and an extensive article within its pages.

In the summer of 1929 he visited the Holy Land, where he prayed for the Jews left behind on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He continued on to the United States, where he hoped to inspire American Jews to rekindle their Jewish observance, which had been somewhat neglected. He also planned to raise much-needed funds for his widespread network of “illegal” Jewish institutions throughout the Soviet Union, which included mikvahs, schools and yeshivas.

His visit to the US lasted from the fall of 1929 to the summer of 1930 and included a two-month stay in Chicago. On his arrival in each of the dozen cities on his itinerary, he was greeted by massive crowds comprising the local Jewish community, elected officials, and dignitaries. Among those awaiting the Rebbe in Chicago was the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Anton Cermak.

Like everyone, Cermak was deeply impressed by the Rebbe’s faith, piety, and genuine concern for others.

Anton Cermak, 44th Mayor of Chicago (1931–33)
Anton Cermak, 44th Mayor of Chicago (1931–33)

A child immigrant from what is today the Czech Republic, Cermak started working at an early age, and on entering politics quickly became popular with Chicago’s emerging working class, who were attracted to the city’s factories, stockyards, and transportation hubs.

In the spring of 1931, a year after the Rebbe’s visit, Cermak was elected mayor of Chicago, propelled into office by disenfranchised immigrants and minorities who chafed at the Irish-dominated political establishment's unwillingness or inability to rein in the city’s organized crime and contend with the scarcity and desperation the Great Depression had brought.

On Feb. 15, 1933, Cermak was in Miami, speaking with President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would take office less than three weeks later.

Suddenly, shots rang out. Assassin Giuseppe Zangara had attempted to kill the president-elect, but at the last moment someone grabbed his arm and he missed. Unfortunately, four others were caught in the spray of bullets, including Cermak, who was shot in his lung.

In the weeks that followed, Cermak lay in a Miami hospital, sentient but clearly unwell. And it was then that his daughter, Mrs. Floyd Kenlay, decided that Divine help was needed.

The phone call was reported in no less than three Estonian papers
The phone call was reported in no less than three Estonian papers

On Feb. 25, she arranged for Albert Goodman (or Godman, as he was referred to in the European press, or Goodan as the Sixth Rebbe referred to him) to place a call to Riga, where the Rebbe was then living.

The call was answered by the Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary.

Goodman explained that Cermak was requesting the blessing of the Rebbe, whom he knew as the primary spiritual leader of the Jews, since he considered himself a sincere friend of the Jews of Chicago whom he had always assisted in whatever way he could.

Rabbi Gurary replied that the Rebbe was in Berlin, tending to health issues, and could be reached via telegram.

From The Sentinel, 3 March 1933 - Courtesy
From The Sentinel, 3 March 1933

The phone conversation ended but Goodman quickly realized that he did not have the Rebbe’s telephone number in Berlin. Through the phone operators, he sent a message to Riga asking for the Rebbe’s Berlin phone number. He soon received the reply that the Rebbe could be reached in Berlin at Uland 62-51.

A local Latvian paper, Segodnya, reported on the conversation, including the facts that the call began at 7:16 p.m., cost 257 LAT (more than $1,100 in today’s US currency), and the quality was so fine that “both parties could be heard without raising their voices.” The phone call itself was considered so newsworthy that it was reported in no less than three newspapers in neighboring Estonia.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, the Rebbe was being cared for by his middle son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who would succeed him as Rebbe in 1950.

Goodman managed to place a call to Berlin, and the Sixth Rebbe soon cabled a message in reply stating, according to the report in the March 3, 1933, edition of the Chicago Sentinel: “I pray to the L‑rd of all flesh that G‑d receive the prayers of the masses on behalf of Mayor Cermak, whose noble deeds should be well received in the time of his distress so he may be speedily cured.”

The Sentinel’s report also included the following: “Rabbi Schneursohn [sic] is descended from the wonder-working Prague rabbi who created the Golem.” Indeed, the Rebbes of Chabad were descendants of the famed Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague, known as the Maharal, whose brilliance as a scholar and philosopher are of much more importance in Jewish circles than the Golem.

The local paper in Riga, Latvia, had full a report on the phone call.
The local paper in Riga, Latvia, had full a report on the phone call.

The Sentinel reported that the Rebbe was not alone in his prayer, and that various local rabbis also took to the radio to pray for their beloved mayor.

From the Rebbe’s correspondence, we also know that he continued to have Cermak in mind and made sure that his representatives were aware of his contact information over the following weeks.

Alas, it was not to be. On March 6, 1933, Anton Cermak died in hospital, with his doctors believing that he ultimately succumbed to colitis, not directly related to his gunshot wound.

The author thanks Eliyahu Shmorgun of Estonia for locating and translating the Estonian news reports, and Gennadi Gramberg of the Jewish Museum of Estonia for locating the Latvian news report.