Left: Manfred Speier standing in front of the Bay Bridge, 1949. Right: Rep. Jackie Speier. (Photos/Courtesy Speier)
Left: Manfred Speier standing in front of the Bay Bridge, 1949. Right: Rep. Jackie Speier. (Photos/Courtesy Speier)

How Rep. Jackie Speier uncovered her family’s hidden Holocaust story

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Jackie Speier, the seven-term Bay Area member of Congress, is known for her advocacy for LGBTQ and women’s rights and her fight against gun violence and government waste. She also has a famously dramatic life story, being shot five times when, as an aide to Rep. Leo Ryan in November 1978, she was part of a group investigating the Peoples Temple cult run by Jim Jones. Their party was ambushed at a Guyana airstrip; Ryan was killed, and Speier was gravely wounded.

What is less known about her life, however, and what the congresswoman herself continues to learn more about each day, is her Jewish background.

“My grandfather was an Ashkenazi Jew,” Speier, who spent two decades in the state Legislature before her promotion to Congress, told J. of her paternal line. “The first time that I was aware of it was when I was 5 and staying with my grandparents. My grandfather had had a stroke; he was at Mount Zion [Hospital] and I overheard my grandmother say ‘He’s Jewish.’”

That whispered surprise was the beginning of a yearslong quest for the truth about the Jewish branch in Speier’s family tree, one shrouded in mystery.

On the cusp of her retirement from Congress, Speier, 72, only recently discovered that her grandfather, German-born Theodor Speier, had been imprisoned briefly in Nazi Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp, and that he and his son Manfred had sheltered as refugees in Shanghai during the Holocaust.

Speier, who is Catholic and grew up in San Francisco familiar with the Armenian heritage from her mother’s side, knew from girlhood that her grandfather was Jewish. But many details about that side of her family were kept from her.

More than simply keeping silent, her father, Manfred Speier, invented a past for himself that erased any inkling of his Jewish heritage or his time in Shanghai during the war. In fact, he told his daughter he had flown with the German air force and had even bombed London during the Blitz. That turned out to be wholly untrue.

Jackie Speier with her father at her wedding in 1987. (Photo/Courtesy Speier)
Jackie Speier with her father at her wedding in 1987. (Photo/Courtesy Speier)

“He always said he had been a pilot for the Luftwaffe,” Speier recounted, “which I always thought was weird. Why would [the Nazis] allow someone with Jewish blood to do that?”

Adding to the mystery, she knew her father had for years received reparations from the German government through the Claims Conference, the organization that compensates Holocaust survivors. Manfred Speier, whom Jackie described as “the rock and foundation of my life,” died 10 years ago, never revealing the truth to his daughter.

Speier grew even more curious about her family history after touring Auschwitz-Birkenau while on a congressional visit a few years after her father’s death.

“There’s not a photo that comes close to capturing the malignancy of what went on there,” she reflected in an interview with J. “The diabolical nature of it left such a lasting impression on me, I wanted to find out more about [my] heritage.”

A DNA test Speier took five years ago confirmed she was 25 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. More recently, she sought research help from the German Embassy and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to see whether there was any truth to what her father had told her about his early life. In January of this year, her sources delivered, providing the documented evidence she needed.

Her father had completely made up the story about the Luftwaffe. Speier will never know why.

Instead, Manfred’s father, Theodor, was arrested on Nov. 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, when hundreds of Jewish shops and synagogues across Germany were destroyed and countless Jews beaten, killed and jailed. He spent a month in Buchenwald before he and 17-year-old Manfred boarded a ship for Shanghai, which became a refuge for thousands of German Jews during the war. The record is unclear about Speier’s grandmother, Emma, who was Catholic, and whether she joined them or remained in Germany.

Jackie Speier in her state office with daughter Stephanie Sierra, photo undated. (Photo/Courtesy Speier)
Jackie Speier in her state office with daughter Stephanie Sierra, photo undated. (Photo/Courtesy Speier)

All of this new information stunned Speier.

“I’m sad to admit my family really suppressed the Jewish experience,” she said. “It was an astonishing realization.”

After the war, Theodor returned to Germany, lived in a displaced persons camp and, later, emigrated with his wife to the United States, moving first to New Orleans and then to Southern California in 1949. Speier’s father came to the U.S. separately, moving to New York and then settling in San Francisco. He met and married Nancy Kanchelian, a Fresno native of Armenian descent, and their daughter Jackie was born in 1950.

On her Armenian side, Speier lost relatives at the hands of the Turks in the Armenian genoide during World War I. Knowing more about her Jewish roots and her family connections to two genocides informs her politics and her worldview. “My commitment to human rights has always been extremely high,” she added. “Now it’s more informed, more textured.”

Speier went into public service after recovering from the shooting in 1978. She served in California’s Assembly and Senate before being elected to fill the seat of the late Rep. Tom Lantos (a Holocaust survivor), in what is now the 14th Congressional District representing parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

She sits on two important committees, Armed Services and Intelligence. In those roles, she has developed close personal ties with Israel and Israeli officials. “I’ve always been a strong advocate for a two-state solution,” she said, “and protecting Israel is a high priority for this country. Israel is one of our closest allies.”

Meanwhile, Speier says she is still processing her newfound knowledge about her family and their Jewish background, and she doesn’t rule out making a deeper exploration of that side of her heritage — something that will become more possible in January when she retires.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.