By Jerzy Haszczyński
A century ago, Bernie Sanders’s father arrived in the United States. In fact, he arrived twice – the first time was a particular mystery, and up to now has not been described. Retracing this immigrant’s steps is a fascinating task.
Bernie Sanders is the 78-year-old currently leading the contest to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge Donald Trump in November’s US presidential elections. Were he to win, Sanders would become the first American president whose father came from Poland.
Eliasz (later Elias, or simply Eli, and on his gravestone the Hebrew version, Eliahu Ben Yehuda) was a Jew born in Poland at a time when the country did not exist on the map – being partitioned between Germany, Russia and Austria – and then leaving it just after it reappeared following World War One.
When arriving in the US, he informed American immigration officials that Polish was the language he read and wrote in. This information can be seen in publicly available documents at Ellis Island, where prospective Americans arrived after their voyage across the Atlantic. But to get to it, one must first know the maiden name of his mother, the senator’s grandmother.
If you use the search function to look for “Elias Sanders”, you find only his arrival on 24 April 1931, when he was already a US citizen a decade after arriving in America as a poor immigrant from Poland.
A forgotten voyage from France
Elias Sanders first sailed to America from Europe in 1920, as a 16-year-old boy. This is the most mysterious part of his migrant biography, and to the best of my knowledge not mentioned in any source.
Since Senator Sanders first achieved renown as a candidate for the White House four years ago, information about his immigrant father from Poland has appeared in the media, especially on Jewish websites. These never give 1920 as the year he left Poland to cross the Atlantic; usually they say 1921.
The same year can be found on genealogy websites Geni and WikiTree, while Findagrave even says 1922. In fact, the senator’s father embarked on this mysterious, unrecorded voyage on board the Rochambeau from Le Havre in France, arriving in New York on 13 August 1920.
He gave his name as Elias Gutmann (using his mother’s maiden name, which is usually spelt with one “n” in Polish but the Ellis Island form gives her name as Etel Gutmann), and his place of birth as Słopnice/Galicia, a village near Limanowa, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Kraków.
The form included questions on whether the new arrivals were polygamists or anarchists (everyone from the Rochambeau replied “no” to both) and on their health (all answers were “good”), including whether they were “deformed and crippled” (all “no”). The 16-year-old Elias, presented as a trader, was 5 feet 5 inches tall (165 cm).
Although there is no “deported” note on the form filled in by the immigration official, Elias was probably not allowed into the United States. Less than a year later, he tried again, and this time was successful.
Second voyage from Europe, this time Belgium
On 5 June 1921, Eliasz Gitman – 17 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, fair skin, black hair, dark eyes – arrived in New York. He claimed that he had never previously been to the United States.
My father traveled across an ocean to come to this country from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket, to escape poverty and persecution. That took unbelievable courage, and he became the proudest American you ever saw. #FathersDay pic.twitter.com/Tbo0TuXAzv
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 16, 2019
This time he sailed from Antwerp in Belgium on board the Lapland, a ship belonging to the Red Star Line, sailing under a British banner. Its sister ship, the smaller Poland, was also sailing for the company at the time. For the first three decades of the 20th century – until 1934, when it went bankrupt – the Red Star Line carried 2 million emigrants to America, mostly Jews from Eastern Europe.
Eliasz Gitman gave his profession as “student”, spoke and wrote Polish, was a “Hebrew”, and a citizen of Poland. The place of birth given on the form is “Stopnica” in Poland, not Słopnice, but there is no doubt that this was the same young man who had sailed to America the previous year from Le Havre.
He provided the same contact name in each case, his uncle Abraham Louis Horn, although in the first case he only gave the initials A.J. (and not A.L.). The address is the same: 186 Madison Street, New York – although it was spelt “Madasin Street” the second time round. On this occasion, his mother’s name is spelt Gutman, and her first name is Jetti, not Etel, but there are also two versions in documents in Poland.
Ageing in documents
Things become more complicated still. Elias’s mother used several surnames – there are four on her death certificate issued in February 1934 in Słopnice. She died as Ettel Schnützer (the name of her last husband, Maurycy Schnützer), née Gutman, alias Horn, by her first marriage Sander.
In Poland, the Sanders name did not yet have an “s” at the end. The aforementioned death certificate of the innkeeper Ettel Schnützer, laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery in Limanowa, lists one of her children as Eliasz Sander, age 32, living in America. The information about age is imprecise. At the time Elias was in fact almost 30, not 32, and for a while this introduced some uncertainty into my research. But I now have no doubt that this was one and the same person, the father of the senator from Vermont.
Not all documents are precise; officials often make mistakes, and writing names from different languages and alphabets is a difficult task. Not to mention the fact that officials could intentionally be misled. Was this the case with the senator’s father? It is hard to determine after a hundred years, but it is also hard to escape the question of why basic data about the youthful would-be American from 1920 are different from those given in 1921.
Even the petition for naturalisation submitted by Elias Sanders in 1927 turns out to be imprecise. Słopnice has turned into “Stopince” in Austria – this at least is true, because when the applicant was born – and here I learned his date of birth, 14 September 1904 – there was no Poland. Sanders himself, giving his occupation as merchant (he worked in a paint store, as I learned from one genealogy website), names 1921 as his year of arrival in the United States. There is no word of his earlier voyage from Le Havre.
Roman with the stiff arm
The future senator was born in New York in 1941, two decades after his father’s departure from Poland. His mother, Dorothy Glassberg (daughter of Benjamin, born in the Lublin region of what is now Poland, according to the website Findagrave), married Elias Sanders in 1934. Both died when Bernie Sanders was entering adulthood – she in 1960, he in 1962.
Bernie Sanders did not visit his father’s homeland until 2013. The village mayor of Słopnice, Adam Sołtys, heard that somebody important was coming from the family that had lived in house number 215. (Images of the former family home and Sanders’s visit to Słopnice can be found here.)
“It began not with the name, or people, but with the house. We checked that it was a house formerly beginning to Jews, which had still existed in the 1990s. Only later did I find out that this important guest from America was Bernie Sanders,” Sołtys said, adding that it was not a typical highlander’s cottage, but a “vaguely industrial” building, with the bottom part used for trading.
The future senator’s family ran a general store, with an apartment upstairs. It was different, richer somehow. “There are none of these cottages left any more,” says the mayor. “They’ve all been rebuilt.”
“My father, who’s now 91, remembers that Roman with the stiff arm lived in that house, a very distinctive man,” said Sołtys. “And I told Bernie Sanders that. And he came to life then, as his father had talked about Roman with the stiff arm too. That was when I was certain that the senator was in the right village.”
Roman was Elias’s half-brother, according to Tablet, the American Jewish online magazine, in an article about Bernie Sanders’s origins.
The Jewish community in Słopnice was small by the standards of Poland a century ago. First around 100 Jews; then, after a wave of emigration, 40; and finally 35 (out of around 4,000 residents in the village). None of the Jews still living there at the start of the Second World War survived the Holocaust.
In recent months, Bernie Sanders has written about his father’s emigration on several occasions. He has given two reasons: horrendous poverty and widespread antisemitism.
This article was originally published in Polish by Rzeczpospolita here, and has been translated into English by Ben Koschalka.