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Brazilian database records, historian cast doubt on Santos’ claims of Jewish ancestry

A New York Times expose prompted a closer look at the congressman-elect's claims

David Becker for the Washington Post

New York Rep.-elect George Santos speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Annual Leadership Meeting at the Venetian Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 19, 2022.

In his campaign materials and on the trail, George Santos, an upstart Republican elected to Congress last month on Long Island, wove a compelling family narrative, tracing his maternal grandparents’ flight from Jewish persecution in Soviet Ukraine to Belgium, where, he has claimed, they fled the Nazi occupation before settling in Brazil.

“It’s a story of survival, of tenacity, of grit, as we like to call it,” Santos, 34, said from the stage of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership conference last month in Las Vegas.

But with key elements of Santos’ background now under increased scrutiny — including his résumé, education and finances — the harrowing immigrant tale and claims to Jewish heritage he sold to voters have also been called into question amid new revelations uncovered by Jewish Insider that show major discrepancies in his family story.

Brazilian records from a national civil identification database reviewed by JI reveal that Santos’ maternal grandmother, Rosalina Caruso Horta Devolder, was born in 1927, and is unlikely to have immigrated from Belgium in 1940, as Santos has previously claimed. If that were the case, she would have left Europe around the age of 13. But Santos has said his grandmother and grandfather were married before they fled Belgium to Brazil, casting doubt on his timeline. 

It is likely that both Santos’ grandmother and her mother — Alzira Saint Anna Caruso, according to additional Brazilian records seen by JI — were born in Brazil. His maternal grandfather, Paulo Horta Devolder, was, “by all indications, Brazilian,” according to Fábio Koifman, a historian at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro who specializes in the entry of foreigners into Brazil between 1937 and 1945.

While his story has varied on the different occasions he has told it, Santos has most frequently said his grandfather, who was born in 1918, escaped Stalin’s persecution when he fled Ukraine in the 1920s and met the woman who would become his wife in Belgium. But Koifman, who recently assembled an extensive genealogical record of Santos’ family, the details of which he shared with JI, said there is “no evidence that he was born in Ukraine or that he was Belgian or came from Belgium.”

Among the foreigners who entered Brazil in the years after World War II, only two were named Devolder, according to Koifman. They arrived separately in 1948 and 1955 respectively, and only lived in Brazil temporarily. “I didn’t find any during the war,” Koifman said. 

If anyone in Santos’ family tree immigrated to Brazil from Belgium, it was his maternal great-grandfather, Leonardo Antonius Ludovicus, a Belgian engineer. The father of Santos’ maternal grandfather, he was born in 1863 and arrived in Brazil at the end of the 19th century, according to Koifman. In Brazil, he became Leonardo Antônio Horta Devolder, incorporating Horta from his father’s family and Devolder from his mother’s side. He died in 1951.

“George has an interesting family history with nice and important people,” Koifman said in an email exchange with JI. “I suspect he doesn’t have the slightest idea of this, for that reason he invented ancestors.”

The Forward also reviewed genealogy websites that show Santos’ maternal grandparents were born in Brazil, as was his mother, Fatima Devolder, who died in 2016 at a hospital in Queens, according to an online obituary. Santos has been less specific about his Catholic father, Gercino Antonio dos Santos Jr., who was also born in Brazil, saying only that he “comes from Angolan roots,” which JI could not corroborate. 

Meanwhile, none of Santos’ maternal ancestors “suggest any closeness to Judaism,” Koifman said. “All were baptized, married and buried according to Catholic rites and traditions. Most of them were born, lived and died in the city of Niterói, with a certain concentration in the Santa Rosa neighborhood from the mid-1950s.”

Near the end of the election, however, Santos freely identified as Jewish, placing himself in a somewhat rarefied position to become the next — and only — Jewish Republican member of New York’s congressional delegation as Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) prepares to retire at the end of the current term.

Though he has described himself as a practicing Catholic, the congressman-elect expressed a personal sense of connection to his purported Jewish heritage. “Whether my mother’s Jewish background beliefs, which are mine, or my father’s Roman Catholic beliefs, which are also mine, are represented or not,” he explained in an interview with JI shortly after the midterms, “I want to represent everyone else that practices every other religion to make sure everybody feels like they have a partner in me.”

But personal and professional acquaintances of the congressman-elect say they have no awareness of his connection to Judaism, and mainstream Jewish organizations in New York haven’t met with him. In addition, Jewish residents of Niterói, a tight-knit suburb of Rio de Janeiro, tell JI they have no recollection of interacting with his mother, who lived there. His maternal grandmother, Rosalina, who died in 2010 from a pulmonary infection, is also buried in a Catholic cemetery in Niterói.

Fatima appears to have identified as Catholic as well. In several posts published to Facebook before her death, she frequently commented with the Portuguese equivalent to “amen” above various religious sayings as well as select images of a cross, an angel and the Virgin Mary, among other things.

Santos did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Monday, nor did a spokesperson for his campaign.

Joseph Murray, a lawyer for Santos, said he was unable to address a range of questions on Monday evening, insisting that he would “respond in due course.”

“We are preparing our response to this very suspicious shotgun style of allegations, but we are not going to respond in a piecemeal fashion,” Murray said in an email to JI. “I am sorry if that does not help you with your deadline, but you have to understand our perspective that by responding to some (easy ones) but not all allegations right away, will undoubtedly create a story within a story, as to why we chose to respond to some and not all right away.”

He said he would “be sure to discuss” JI’s inquiries with Santos.

In a statement to JI, Matt Brooks, the chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the RJC is “aware of the claims being made against” Santos and has “reached out to his office directly to ascertain whether they are true,” adding: “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.”

It was only just a couple of months ago, if not earlier, that Santos appears to have first characterized on his campaign site his mother’s family’s immigrant journey through a Jewish lens. “George’s grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, and again fled persecution during WWII,” the site says.

Santos had initially only written that his mother “was born in Brazil to Belgian immigrants” who “fled the devastation of World War II Europe,” as he had also specified when he launched his first House campaign in 2019. But on or before Oct. 14 — roughly three weeks before the election — he updated that language to include new details about “Jewish persecution” and fleeing Ukraine, according to archived screenshots available on the WayBack Machine.

While it is not entirely apparent when Santos himself began identifying as Jewish, news accounts suggest it was somewhat recently.

“I’m a free thinker,” he said in an interview with Politico this past August, just before the Republican primary. “I’m Latino, I’m gay, I’m Jewish. I do what I want. I don’t fit in the boxes that they want me to fit in.”

Poised to become the first openly gay representative from Long Island, Santos handily defeated a Jewish Democrat, Robert Zimmerman, in New York’s redrawn 3rd Congressional District, which is home to a sizable Jewish population and mostly covers the North Shore of Long Island. His eight-point victory flipped a swing seat held by outgoing Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) and helped deliver a narrow Republican majority in the House.

After the election, Santos discussed his own relationship to Judaism in somewhat more depth. “As I always joke, I’m Jew-ish,” he told the Jewish News Syndicate in a video interview last month. “I’m very proud of that heritage,” he added. “I might not be a practicing Jew, but I’m still at heart.”

On Sunday, Santos appeared with Zeldin at a private RJC event on Long Island to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah. “May this Festival of Lights bring peace, good health, and prosperity to all,” Santos tweeted, adding a photo in which he was pictured lighting a menorah and wearing a yarmulke.

During the election, Santos said he built close relationships with members of the Persian Jewish community in Great Neck, which has traditionally been conservative. “That’s my second home,” he told JI last month. “They’re fantastic to me. I go to Shabbat with them, I go to temple with them.”

But such goodwill apparently had its limits. In mid-October, Santos caused some tension when he showed up uninvited to a private reception hosted by the Iranian American Jewish Federation of Great Neck, according to a person familiar with the event who asked to remain anonymous to discuss a sensitive matter. 

Santos’ presence at the intimate gathering in Kings Point, where participants included a county legislator and local mayor, was a potential source of concern because the IAJF is a nonprofit organization that seeks to remain neutral in political races and typically avoids engaging with candidates close to elections, the person said. “Santos was a candidate who was not in office and shouldn’t have been there,” the person explained. 

Santos made no mention of that dynamic when he shared photos of his appearance at the IAJF reception on Twitter, writing that “many members are worried about crime and inflation” and vowing to “have their back in DC!”

The person familiar with the IAJF event speculated that Santos had been informed of its existence by Mehran Hakimian, a local political activist who is said to have helped broker introductions between Santos and Persian Jews in the district, who make up a significant voting bloc. Hakimian, who donated to Santos’ campaign, sits on IAJF’s advisory board and is a leader within Great Neck’s Mashadi Jewish community. 

Reached by phone on Monday evening, Hakimian seemed reluctant to explain his connection to Santos. He declined to clarify his relationship with the congressman-elect and, somewhat surprisingly, said he was unaware if Santos was Jewish. “He has never told me this in person,” Hakimian said, claiming that he had “never asked him directly.”

“I did not speak to him about it,” Hakimian said in a brief conversation with JI before abruptly hanging up. “I did not have a direct conversation with him about it. I never told anybody that he’s Jewish or not. But I don’t know. I really don’t know. I heard him saying it to other people. I’ve heard of him saying it to other people.”

In a follow-up text, Hakimian also denied having notified Santos of the private IAJF event, saying he “did not attend the event” himself and “did not urge anyone else to attend.”

Earlier this month, Santos drew criticism for his appearance at a New York Young Republican Club gala in Manhattan where a number of right-wing extremists were present, including the anti-immigrant publisher Peter Brimelow, whom the Anti-Defamation League has labeled a white supremacist.

Charles Lovett, a spokesperson for Santos, told JI last week that the congressman-elect “did not interact with Mr. Brimelow, nor does he share his views.”

“As the son of immigrants, in addition to being bi-racial himself, George Santos has been outspoken against political violence, white supremacy and antisemitism,” Lovett said.

In the interview with JI, Santos said he views the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran, which is widely opposed among Persian Jews, as inherently antisemitic because it lends legitimacy to an authoritarian regime. “I think the largest crime that we can talk about when it comes to antisemitism and the threat to Israel is any kind of negotiation with Iran,” he said. 

Santos said he had visited Israel “four times” but did not provide details about the nature of the trips. 

Meanwhile, Santos has yet to engage with the broader organized Jewish community in New York.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York hasn’t had “any contact with” Santos, a spokesperson for the organization, which represents the Jewish community to New York government officials and counts more than 50 local Jewish groups as members, told JI on Monday. 

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island, a department of the JCRC-NY, also has “yet to meet with” the congressman-elect, according to Mindy Perlmutter, the group’s executive director.

“I’m connected with the community,” Santos told JI a day after the midterms. “They know I’m there for them without me having to campaign on it, because it’s common sense, second nature, and I’ve always been a part of the community.”

Additional reporting contributed by Jewish Insider’s Capitol Hill reporter Marc Rod and managing editor Melissa Weiss.

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