Congressman-elect George Santos’ emotional narrative of having Jewish grandparents who fled Europe during World War II appears to be untrue, like much of the rest of his campaign biography, according to genealogy websites reviewed by the Forward.
Santos, a Long Island Republican, has said that his father was Catholic and his mother was Jewish, and that both faiths “are mine.” The very first line of the “About George” page on his campaign website states: “George’s grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, and again fled persecution during WWII.”
But the website myheritage.com lists Santos’ maternal grandparents as having both been born in Brazil before the Nazis rose to power — his grandfather, Paulo Horta Devolder, in 1918, and his grandmother, Rosalina Caruso Horta Devolder, in Rio, in 1927. An online obituary for Santos’ mother, Fatima Aziza Caruso Horta Devolder, who died in 2016, says she was born in Niterói, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, on Dec. 22, 1962, to Paul and Rosalina Devolder.
Fatima’s own Facebook page, which has photos of her with Santos and tags his page, has no mentions of the words “Jew” or “Jewish,” nor the terms Yom Kippur, Shabbat or Israel in English or Portuguese. But four of the seven pages she “liked” were for Catholic groups, and another was for a Brazilian priest and singer.
She regularly shared posts with Catholic themes and images of Jesus, including one eight months before her death from a Brazilian Christian group, Tarde com Maria (Afternoons with Maria), that says in Portuguese: “The cross of Christ for some is a symbol of defeat, for us it is a symbol of salvation.” Another adapts a quote from Genesis, “There’s an angel today, delivering from all evil.”
A chorus of constituents and government watchdogs have called for Santos to step aside or for Congress to refuse to seat him in January since a blockbuster New York Times investigation on Monday reporting that much of his storybook biography appears to have been made up. The Times said that neither Baruch College, which Santos said he was graduated from in 2010, nor Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, where Santos said he had worked, had any record of him.
Even the animal rescue group he said he founded does not appear to exist.
A lawyer for Santos dismissed the report as a “shotgun blast of attacks” and “defamatory allegations.” He then repeated a common misattribution to Winston Churchill of a line that originated in an 1845 essay by Victor Hugo: “You have enemies? Good. It means that you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Santos’ campaign did not respond to the Forward’s email inquiries on Tuesday regarding the false statements about his grandparents’ birthplaces and backgrounds. On Monday, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Santos did not return emails sent to multiple addresses or messages sent through a number of social media platforms, and that his sister and lawyer also did not reply to email messages.
Matt Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the RJC “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. 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.”
Santos, who is 34, made history in November as the first openly gay Republican to win a House seat as a non-incumbent, beating the Democrat, Robert Zimmerman, by 8 percentage points. His district, which spans much of Nassau County and some of Queens, is about 20% Jewish.
“That he would actually lie about the Holocaust to try to promote himself, it’s not offensive — it’s sick and obscene,” Zimmerman said Wednesday after revelations about Santos’ heritage were published. “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.”
Zimmerman said he hopes the U.S. Department of Justice, the House Ethics Committee and other forces will intervene to keep Santos from serving in Congress, but he declined to say whether he himself would run again if there were a special election to fill the seat.
Santos joined a Republican Jewish Coalition candle-lighting ceremony on Long Island Sunday night alongside outgoing Rep. Lee Zeldin, and last month was a featured speaker at the RJC’s convention in Las Vegas, billed as one of two freshmen Jewish Republicans. (The other is Ohio’s Max Miller.) He campaigned heavily among Orthodox Jews, and after a Chabad event on Nov. 3, tweeted, “It was an honor to address fellow members of the Jewish community in #NY03.”
In an interview with Jewish Insider, Santos described himself as a non-observant Jew, and said his four visits to Israel were “the most exciting experiences” of his life. He talked about spending Shabbat and going to synagogue with Persian Jews in Great Neck, and said he would treat all constituents fairly regardless of their backgrounds.
“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 said, “I want to represent everyone else that practices every other religion to make sure everybody feels like they have a partner in me.”
But it appears Santos is not Jewish — and lied about his family fleeing persecution during the war.
Neither of his maternal grandparents appear in Brazilian immigration cards in the 1930s or 1940s, or in the databases of Yad Vashem or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which list European Jewish refugees.
Yet Santos has repeatedly and publicly proclaimed to be descended from survivors, responding to a critic on Twitter back in 2020: “You pulled the Nazi card on the grandson of Holocaust refugees.”
Rosalina’s parents, Vicente Caruso and Alzira Sant’anna Caruso, were both born in Brazil, according to myheritage.com, as was Paulo’s mother, Maria Victória Alexandra Horta Da Fonseca. But Paulo’s father — George Santos’ great-grandfather — Leonard Antoine (Ludovicus Thomas) Horta Devolder, was an engineer born in Belgium, in 1863. A 1954 article in the Rio newspaper Correio da Manha (Morning Mail) states that Leonard Antione immigrated to Brazil in 1884 and later founded a school in the city of Petrópolis. Leonard and his wife, Maria, are also listed in 1928 church records of the marriage of their daughter.
Santos may be named after him: His full name is George Anthony Devolder Santos.
A second family tree on the French genealogy website Geneanet, created by Gea Sierdsma, a distant Dutch relative of Santos, corroborates Paulo’s parentage and birthplace. This tree includes several photographs of Leonard the engineer, and the group shot at the top of this article. Sierdsma, who researched the family’s lineage in archives in Antwerp, confirmed by email that the family does not have Ukrainian or Jewish roots.
Forward political reporter Jacob Kornbluh contributed to this story.