santos saga

Experts dismiss Santos’ latest defense of claims of Jewish refugee grandparents 

In an interview with Piers Morgan, Santos said his grandparents had “falsified a lot of their documents to claim they were born” in Brazil after fleeing Nazi-occupied Belgium

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Rep. George Santos looks on as the House of Representatives continues voting for new speaker at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 5, 2023.

In a wide-ranging television interview with Piers Morgan last week, Rep. George Santos (R-NY) floated a new claim to defend the widely debunked story he has told about his maternal grandparents, who, he insists, escaped Europe during World War II and settled in South America as Jewish refugees.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Santos, 34, now maintains that this account holds up because his grandparents had, apparently unbeknown to immigration officials at the time, “falsified a lot of their documents to claim they were born” in Brazil after fleeing Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1940 or 1941, he said on “Piers Morgan Uncensored.”

“We are talking about a time in history where this was a very common occurrence in the name of survival,” the embattled congressman proclaimed, introducing a previously uncited twist to the dubious immigration tale he sold to voters ahead of the midterms.

Santos, who fabricated most of his own personal and professional biography, did not specify which documents had allegedly been forged. More broadly, he has yet to produce any evidence to show that his grandparents and other maternal ancestors were not in fact Catholic and born in Brazil, as multiple records uncovered in recent months have demonstrated. 

A spokesperson for Santos, asked to corroborate his recent claim, told Jewish Insider on Sunday that the congressman’s office “does not comment on personal matters.”

Presented with Santos’ latest assertion, meanwhile, Fábio Koifman, a historian who specializes in the entry of foreigners into Brazil during World War II, dismissed the suggestion that using falsified documents to find refuge abroad had in any way been widespread, particularly at a time when immigration to South America’s largest country was strictly controlled by an authoritarian regime.

Koifman, an associate professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, said in an email to JI that he was only aware, for example, of a “single foreigner” who had arrived in Brazil with an invented name between 1937 and 1945, which coincided with a short-lived dictatorship known as the “Estado Novo.”

In more than 25 years “studying cases exactly at this time,” said Koifman, a leading expert on the era, he has also found records of “German Jews with purchased passports” from Haiti and other countries, as well as falsified visas, all including real names. “They tried without much success” and “were soon discovered,” he told JI, citing a heightened “concern for ‘communist infiltration’ or with criminals and scammers” from the fascist-leaning government.

If Santos’ grandparents had in fact claimed citizenship with forged papers, then the real or imagined names they used on their travel documents to leave Belgium would be readily searchable, Koifman averred, noting the difficulties associated with changing such information once in Brazil. “If they did not enter their own names,” asked Koifman, who carefully reconstructed Santos’ maternal lineage in December, “what names did they use?”

Renee Steinig, a veteran genealogist on Long Island who has also closely examined Santos’ family tree, agreed that there is no compelling reason to believe Santos’ maternal grandparents hadn’t simply been natives of Brazil. Usually, she said, “forged records don’t make their way into government archives.”

In a recent email exchange with JI, Steinig, who has worked with a group of genealogists in recent months to poke several holes in Santos’ biography, shared a link to what she characterized with near-certainty as the birth record of Santos’ grandmother, Rosalina Caruso Horta Devolder.

The document, which has not previously been reported, is written in Portuguese and listed on FamilySearch, a free genealogical reference site maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The digital record confirms that Rosalina was born in Niterói, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, in July 1927, as other sources have shown.

Her birthdate is elsewhere listed on MyHeritage, a paid genealogical platform, as well as a record from a Brazilian national identification database reviewed by JI in December. Rosalina, who died from a pulmonary infection in 2010, is buried in a Catholic cemetery in Niterói, according to a Brazilian death notice shared with JI.

While experts have been unable to locate a birth record for Santos’ grandfather, Paulo Horta Devolder, reference sites say he was also born in Brazil in 1918, and died in 1967. “I haven’t found Paulo’s record and others have not either,” Steinig told JI. “The records on FamilySearch are for the Rio area. If he was born elsewhere in Brazil, his birth record may not be online.”

In correspondence with JI, Koifman told JI that he had likewise been unable to dig up Paulo’s record, suggesting that FamilySearch, which depends on volunteers, has “not yet microfilmed everything.” 

Still, his digging did uncover at least one connection to Belgium via Paulo’s father, Leonardo Antonius Ludovicus, a Belgian-born engineer who “Brazilianzed” his name to Leonardo Antônio Horta Devolder when he arrived in Brazil near the end of the 19th century, Koifman said. 

The birth record of Rosalina, on the other hand, also lists her Brazilian-born mother, Alzira Santa’anna Caruso, and grandparents, Domingos Caruso and Philomena Sanguineti, all of whom have Italian surnames. “George’s great-grandparents, the Carusos, were Italians!” Koifman scoffed, after reviewing the record last week.

Santos, who was himself born in Queens, does not appear to have alluded to his Italian lineage while running for office or during his time in the House, where he is currently facing multiple investigations and calls for his resignation. He has otherwise suggested that his father, Gercino Antonio Dos Santos Jr., about whom there is little available biographical information, “comes from Angolan roots.”

More frequently, Santos has claimed that Paulo was born in Soviet Ukraine and later escaped to Belgium, where he met his wife, before they both fled to Brazil in the early 1940s. He has also said that Paulo grew up Jewish but converted to Catholicism before the Nazis rose to power.

But there are several inconsistencies that cast doubt on this story. If, for example, his grandfather was born in 1918, as genealogy sites have indicated, the birthdate occurred around four years before Ukraine officially became a founding member of the Soviet Union, in 1922. 

Santos has also claimed, unfeasibly, that his grandparents were married by the time they escaped Belgium. But if Rosalina was born in 1927, then, according to her grandson’s timeline, she would only have been in her early teens when she purportedly decamped for Brazil. 

“To make George’s lie even more complicated and, as they say in Brazil, with ‘short legs,’” Koifman added, when Belgium was invaded by the Nazis in May 1940, its Brazilian consulates were closed, leaving few if any options to acquire a visa. The Brazilian ambassador in Belgium, for his part, fled to France by car, said Koifman, who claimed to have “all the nominal lists of visas granted” during the period Santos contends his grandparents left the country.

The congressman has not clarified such discrepancies since he was elected in November to represent a swing seat covering Long Island and Queens. 

But he has continued to claim Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side, most recently in his hour-long conversation with Piers Morgan a week ago. “This is the one that I will battle to my grave to the point that I’ve already ordered those DNA test kits,” he said. “I have done four of them so far, and I’m just waiting for their returns. And I’m very curious to share those with everybody.”

Whatever their results, however, such tests would not explain how Santos’ grandparents could possibly have immigrated to Brazil from Europe, not least in possession of documents that he contends were deliberately forged.

In the final accounting, there were “very few people who in that time managed to travel with false documents, unfortunately,” Koifman told JI. “If it were easy and worked,” the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust “would have been a few hundred smaller.”

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