Bernie Sanders Ancestry
Updated on March 8, 2024
Back to top
back to top icon
Bernie Sanders Ancestry
KnowYourDNA is reader-supported. This means we may receive a commission when you buy something from one of the links on this page.

Senator Bernie Sanders recently embarked on a mission to uncover his family history, specifically the story of his father, Elias Sanders.

Elias was born on September 14, 1904, in Slopnice, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is now Poland. He was a Jewish immigrant who rarely spoke of his traumatic past in Poland, so Bernie knew little of his father’s upbringing or the turmoil Elias endured before arriving in America in 1921 at just 17 years old.

Early Life in Poland

Elias was fleeing the widespread poverty and antisemitism rampant in Poland, where life for Jews had become increasingly dangerous.

He arrived in the United States penniless, carrying just $25 to his name after making the difficult decision to leave behind most of his relatives, tragically lost later during the Holocaust.

The experiences of his family, particularly the loss of relatives at the hands of the Nazis, had a profound impact on Bernie and influenced his interest in politics.

World War I and Aftermath

Research would reveal that Elias’ childhood in Poland was far more traumatic than Bernie realized. As Bernie describes the lead-up to World War I:

“He lost his father when he was barely five years old, during a period when Galicia was suffering from terrible famines,” said Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in a conversation with Senator Bernie Sanders for Ancestry’s Finding Your Roots series.1

“And that was just the beginning. When Elias was nine, World War I engulfed Europe. A Russian army entered Galicia and began to terrorize its Jewish population, murdering and robbing at will. Soon after, Austrian forces entered the field, and Elias’ homeland became a war zone,” he continued.

The Horrors of War

The horrors only compounded from there, as Bernie learned:

“On top of everything else, think about a battle of this horror being waged outside of your door. What I’m learning now is that the situation was far, far more dire than I had fully appreciated,” the senator commented.

Post-War Turmoil

Even with the war’s end, peace did not come for the Jewish people of Galicia. The restructuring of Europe unleashed a wave of Polish nationalism that targeted minority groups:

This is by local villages. This is by the person living across the street from you. My father grew up in a community where you did not know who you [could] trust. Maybe the person you bought something from in two days would be ransacking your house. I mean, how do you live in that kind of environment?

Journey to America

One cannot imagine surviving such turmoil, yet somehow Elias persevered and made his way to the United States as a teenager to start a new life.

Despite arriving with just $25, he found opportunities to build a career, family, and home:

“Elias was able to build a life for himself in America. And seven years later, he did something that showed just how important to him that life had become,” said Dr. Gates.

Quoting from Elias Sanders’ certificate of naturalization, Senator Sanders read aloud, “Be it remembered that Elias Sanders, on the 14th day of February, it was thereupon ordered by the said court that he be admitted as a citizen, as a citizen of the United States of America.”


As Bernie reflected on his father’s certificate of naturalization, he said:

My dad was a very, very proud American. He loved this country in a very, very deep way. The discussions that we’ve had today made me realize all the more why he loved this country and the opportunities that it gave him, especially from where he came from.

Uncovering his father’s past gave Bernie immense gratitude not only for Elias’ courage but also for the sanctuary America offered those seeking freedom and opportunity.

This genealogical journey bridges generational gaps, helping us understand immigrants’ appreciation for the chance to rebuild their lives in a nation founded on liberty for all.

Updated on March 8, 2024
Minus IconPlus Icon
2 sources cited
Updated on March 8, 2024
Joel Hirsch
Joel Hirsch
Content Contributor
Joel Hirsch is a health enthusiast and gym rat with a degree in Health Sciences. He spends his time writing about products that help people reach their health goals.