NY congressman-elect apparently lied about having grandparents who fled Nazis

Maternal grandparents of George Santos born in Brazil, documents show, contradicting GOP candidate’s claim they escaped Europe; elected Republican also campaigned with false resume

Then-Republican candidate George Santos for New York's 3rd Congressional District campaigns outside a Stop and Shop store, November 5, 2022, in Glen Cove, New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
Then-Republican candidate George Santos for New York's 3rd Congressional District campaigns outside a Stop and Shop store, November 5, 2022, in Glen Cove, New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

JTA — When The New York Times reported earlier this week that virtually the entire resume of George Santos, recently elected as a Republican congressman from Long Island, appeared to be a fabrication, it left untouched one detail: his claim to Jewish heritage.

On his website, Santos said his maternal grandparents were refugees from the Nazis when they arrived in Brazil. He also said that he counted as his own his mother’s “Jewish background beliefs” as well as his father’s Catholicism.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on Monday that Santos’s claim that his mother was Jewish had no evidence and was suspicious given her name, common among Brazilian Catholics, and her online obituary, which did not mention any Jewish identity.

“I asked him about this. He identifies as Jewish,” the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which had been feting Santos as one of two new Republican Jews in Congress, told JTA at the time.

Now, the Forward has identified records indicating that Santos’s grandparents had not in fact fled the Nazis. Santos’s claim to be the descendant of refugees of anti-Jewish persecution, it appears, is also a lie.

Both of Santos’s maternal grandparents were born in Brazil, according to the records identified by the Forward, which also obtained a 1954 Brazilian newspaper article reporting that his great-grandfather immigrated from Belgium in 1884. The great-grandfather was listed in church records on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage in 1928, according to the Forward, which obtained a photograph of the family in Brazil that appears to be from the early 20th century.

US Representative-elect George Santos, a New York Republican, speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Jewish Insider, meanwhile, obtained records from a Brazilian national civil identification database further undermining Santos’s story. And CNN scrutinized multiple databases about people persecuted by the Nazis and found no record of Santos’s family.

“There’s no sign of Jewish and/or Ukrainian heritage and no indication of name changes along the way,” Megan Smolenyak, a professional genealogist, told CNN after researching Santos’s family history.

Robert Zimmerman, the Democrat who conceded to Santos after losing by 8 points, told the Forward that Santos’s apparent fabrications about his Jewish heritage were especially galling, even amid a string of apparently false claims about his career, education and even address.

“That he would actually lie about the Holocaust to try to promote himself, it’s not offensive — it’s sick and obscene,” Zimmerman told the Forward. “It’s one of the most vile things you can do, to actually use one of the world’s greatest tragedies, the death of 6 million, as a political stunt.”

There are many reasons why someone might lie about being Jewish. Some people falsely claim Jewish identity out of a desire to identify with those who are oppressed. There can also be opportunistic reasons, to derive benefits available to Jews. And a small group of people simply lie a lot, about all kinds of matters, according to researchers who found that 5% of people report telling half of all lies. (That finding was recently reported in a New York Times article about the former chief of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, who resigned from a subsequent role after his own fabricated resume was exposed).

Santos has not offered any insights about what drove his many apparent lies, which troubled some but were not reported in full until after his election. He did not respond to JTA’s efforts to reach him through multiple pathways on Monday and has not commented publicly since.

Robert Zimmerman, then-Democratic candidate for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, holds a news conference in Great Neck, New York, November 7, 2022. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)New York congressman-elect

But it is clear that laying claim to a Jewish identity could easily have been seen as a selling point in New York’s Third Congressional District, home to a large and growing Orthodox Jewish population. Zimmerman is Jewish.

For now, the Republican Jewish Coalition, which hosted Santos at a Hanukkah party the night before The New York Times story broke, has adjusted its earlier nonchalance about Santos’s background.

The group “is aware of the claims being made against Congressman-elect George Santos, and we have reached out to his office directly to ascertain whether they are true,” CEO Matt Brooks said in a statement Wednesday. “These allegations, if true, are deeply troubling. Given their seriousness, the Congressman-elect owes the public an explanation, and we look forward to hearing it.”

Meanwhile, scrutiny of Santos’s claims is continuing, with new information calling into question his self-identification as having been openly gay for more than a decade. The Daily Beast broke the news Thursday that Santos had not disclosed a marriage to a woman that ended in divorce in 2019, and said it had been unable to find a marriage record for the man Santos says is his husband.

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