Republican Representative-elect George Santos is coming under scrutiny as doubts are raised about his claims that his grandparents escaped the Holocaust and changed their last name to avoid repercussions as Ukrainian Jewish refugees escaping from Belgium.
Mr Santos, who also has faced pushback on a number of other claims he has made about his background, has referred to himself as “half Jewish” and a “Latino Jew” when speaking to the press.
He has also said that his grandparents became Catholics as the Nazis garnered more of a presence in Belgium after they had fled the Soviet Union and its leader Joseph Stalin. In addition, Mr Santos has said that his family changed names to survive.
Several genealogists told CNN there was no evidence supporting these claims.
The Forward initially reported the alleged mischaracterisations by Mr Santos on Wednesday.
Holocaust Museum and International Center on Nazi Persecution records don’t mention Mr Santos’s grandparents.
“There’s no sign of Jewish and/or Ukrainian heritage and no indication of name changes along the way,” genealogist Megan Smolenyak told CNN.
Mr Santos has faced questions regarding his past following a Monday New York Times report that much of his resume appears to be fake, including details regarding his education and workplace history.
“I’m very proud of my Jewish heritage,” he said late last month during an appearance with the Jewish News Syndicate. “I’m very proud of my grandparents’ story. My grandfather fleeing Ukraine, fleeing Stalin’s persecution, going to Belgium, finding refuge there, marrying my grandmother, then fleeing Hitler going to Brazil. That’s a story of perseverance. I’m so proud. I mean, I wish I could have met my grandfather.”
“My grandparents survived the Holocaust, so these regimes of socialism, Marxism, they don’t work, and they’re followed up by a lot of hurt, and we’re seeing that currently and what’s happening in Ukraine with the Russians,” he said in May.
But according to the websites MyHeritage, Geneanet, and a Dutch outlet from the area where the family emigrated from, Mr Santos’s grandparents on his mother’s side, Paolo and Rosalina Devolder, were born in Brazil. The Forward reported that FamilySearch records show that Mr Santos’s great-grandfather lived in Brazil.
The Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine show that Mr Santos’s supposed connections to Ukraine were added to his campaign bio this year, at some point between April and October.
“George’s grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine, settled in Belgium, and again fled persecution during WWII,” the campaign site states.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, Mr Santos told Fox News Digital that his connections to Ukraine were “very vague,” adding that it would be “disingenuous” to say that members of his extended family were in danger.
“It’s just very vague and faint,” he said, adding that “we don’t carry the Ukrainian last name. For a lot of people who are descendants of World War II refugees or survivors of the Holocaust, a lot of names and paperwork were changed in name of survival”.
But genealogists told CNN that family trees show that the last name Devolder has been in place for several generations.
“My grandfather grew up Jewish. My grandfather, during the Soviet issues, escaped to Belgium,” Mr Santos said during one campaign appearance. “And then that was a great move. Met my grandmother, married, and crazy enough, the Nazis became a thing. And that’s when he said, ‘Oh my God, this is all over again.’ They converted to Catholicism, had their kids, raised them Catholic. And I’m Catholic, but that’s pretty much little history of my family into Judaism.”
Mr Santos made history earlier this year when he became the first openly gay non-incumbent Republican elected to Congress, but court records obtained by The Daily Beast reveal that he appears to have gone through a divorce with a woman in Queens, New York in September 2019.
“I am openly gay, have never had an issue with my sexual identity in the past decade, and I can tell you and assure you, I will always be an advocate for LGBTQ folks,” he told USA Today in October.
Mr Santos filed the required paperwork to launch his unsuccessful 2020 campaign within two weeks of the divorce being finalised, The Daily Beast noted.
His 2022 campaign bio mentions his husband but nothing about his previous marriage.
Mr Santos has said that he “never experienced discrimination in the Republican Party”.
Mr Santos’s lawyer Joseph Murray said in a statement on 19 December that Mr Santos “represents the kind of progress that the Left is so threatened by—a gay, Latino, immigrant and Republican who won a Biden district in overwhelming fashion by showing everyday voters that there is a better option than the broken promises and failed policies of the Democratic Party”.
The Independent has reached out to Mr Murray and the Santos campaign for comment.