Saul Anuzis, one of the leading candidates to head the Republican National Committee, broadly shares the same conservative principles as his opponents, but what makes him unique is his compelling family history that he believes would enable him to present the sharpest contrast with President Obama.
Perhaps most interesting about the former Michigan GOP chairman is that this Tweeting, hyperkinetic, Harley rider could be the Republican Party’s best hope at making serious inroads into one of the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies, the Jewish community.
Although Ronald Reagan was the defining political figure in his life, Anuzis is quick to note that he was primed to embrace the Gipper’s message because of the old-fashioned values instilled in him by his parents.
Anuzis grew up idolizing his parents and grandparents, but it wasn’t until his father was on his deathbed that he learned just how heroic they truly were.
When his father was near death in late 1995, Anuzis received a call from a woman in Israel who told him that his family had saved her and others during the Holocaust. His family had been involved in everything from getting paperwork to securing transport for Jews out of Nazi-controlled Lithuania, despite the obvious risk of arrest and death.
Anuzis had never heard one word of it from his father.
What he had learned from his parents, though, were the same values that they felt compelled them to help their neighbors in need, giving him from a young age a strong moral compass and appreciation that the world contains good and evil.
Evil was all around in the 1940’s. Jews across Europe were being rounded up, tortured, and murdered. Most of their neighbors looked away, if they weren’t already collaborating with the Nazis. But not the Anuzis family.
Ignas Anuzis, Saul’s grandfather, ran an import/export business in the capital city of Vilnius, and he had extensive business dealings with Germans. This gave him opportunities to create “official” documents and various “stamps” needed to facilitate travel.
His wife Elena would bring young Jewish girls to the local convent and dress them as nannies, then take them to Lithuania’s second-largest city of Kaunas, in the center of the country. Their son Ceslovas was a customs officer for the railroad, and his wife Elena had just given birth to Saul’s oldest sister, Ausra. Each young Jewish girl was explained to neighbors as a relative from the countryside coming to help as a nanny for the new baby.
Each girl would stay for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, while Ignas created travel documents for them. Then the next girl would come, dressed in exactly the same clothes to appear to be the same relative.
Ceslovas and Elena could see the persecution of the Jews first-hand, as they lived near the Jewish ghetto. But the danger was also tangible: the police chief lived on their street.
Despite the imminent threat to his own family, Ceslovas would get these girls on the train and would often travel with them to Estonia and then send them by ferry to a Scandinavian country or elsewhere. He would bring back the clothes that disguised the girls’ Jewish identities to help others through the same process.
Saul Anuzis does not know how many Jews his family saved, but at least three women came forward to bear witness for awarding his parents and grandparents the highest status of honor given by the Jewish state, Righteous Among the Nations. Their names went up on the wall at Yad Vashem in Israel in 2000, four years after Saul’s father died.
It was one of the women Ceslovas Anuzis saved, in fact, who called Saul in late 1995 to ask if his father could be recognized for his heroism. His father had turned down her request years earlier. She had read that he was dying, and she wanted to ask again.
When Saul asked his father why he had never told anyone, including his own children, he said, "We didn’t help them because they were Jews, we helped them because they were humans being wrongly persecuted."
Saul’s family did not have many fellow travelers. Nearly all of Lithuania’s 210,000 Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. Had the Anuzis family not acted, even fewer would have survived.
Talking to Saul today, it is clear that his parents’ legacy helps define who he is and what he believes he should do with his life. “When you live in a country like the United States, you rarely have the opportunity let alone the need to witness such horror or heroism,” explains Saul. “Many of us take that freedom for granted. But because the memory of my parents and grandparents is always with me, I know we can’t afford complacency.”
His son Matas went on a class trip to Washington, DC a few years ago, and at the Holocaust Museum, he showed his classmates the names of his parents and grandparents as “Righteous Among the Nations,” something that makes Saul emotional, saying, “It brings a different level of understanding for me and my family for the term, ‘Never Forget.’”
While he had always been a strong supporter of Israel before learning of his family’s history, he felt a renewed sense of conviction afterward.
In Michigan, Anuzis worked tirelessly to bring new faces into the party infrastructure, and his Jewish outreach paid dividends. Anuzis’ finance chairman during the 2006 cycle was Amb. Ron Weiser, who is Jewish and later succeeded him as head of the state GOP. His finance chairman in 2008 was Bob Schostak, who is also Jewish and is currently the only candidate to become the next state party chair.
Schostak said in a phone interview that he was moved during a trip to Israel when he was able to see the names of his friend’s parents and grandparents at Yad Vashem. Noting that Anuzis was the one to recruit him into the Michigan Republican Party, he said, “He’s very good at reaching out to people, and he has a very broad appeal.”
As a political creature, Saul normally takes most life lessons back to politics. But when discussing his parents and grandparents, he becomes quiet for a moment, saying, “The lasting legacy from my perspective will be when I finally get to meet the children and grandchildren of some of the survivors my family helped.”