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Swiss-Bank Whistle-Blower Pays a High Price

Holocaust: Bank guard Christoph Meili changed history by saving Nazi-era records from the shredder. But he became persona non grata among his countrymen.

March 04, 2001|CHELSEA J. CARTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sitting in an Orange County restaurant, the slight man with wire-rimmed glasses easily blends in. Here he's just another guy ordering a hamburger and french fries. He seems at home, and this is his home now.

But in conversation, Christoph Meili makes it clear he is no ordinary customer and is not really at home.

"I was just a tool--a pawn in a chess game. You have to have a pawn to win this game," he says, his accent Swiss. "But I know if I didn't do this, the Swiss banks would win."

Four years ago, Meili, then a night watchman at a bank in Zurich, made a decision that changed almost everything in his life. It led to pledges of more than a billion dollars in compensation for wrongs committed during World War II.

Since then he has been called a hero by Holocaust survivors, a traitor by critics in his homeland. He has had to leave alpine Europe for a small house in Southern California. He has become the first Swiss citizen ever granted political asylum in the United States.

Today the onetime watchman is still settling into America, struggling to master English, wary of the future.

Now he's a college student. Among his courses is history, something he once changed.

Saving, and Changing, History

On Jan. 8, 1997, Christoph Meili was working the swing shift as a security guard at Union Bank of Switzerland. It was a good job, certainly better than his previous one, washing dishes at a restaurant, and a long way from his days as an aimless youth experimenting with drugs.

In those days, life was fine for Meili, then 27. He and his wife, Giuseppina, and their two children had a little house. He was anonymous. Then it all changed.

Meili was making his routine checks in the closed building when he noticed something in the shredding room. Two large bins were filled with dusty books and yellowed papers, awaiting destruction.

At first he thought nothing of it.

But as he continued his rounds, he began to think about the reports he had been hearing on the nightly news--allegations by Nazi victims who had deposited their assets in neutral Switzerland in hopes of saving them from the Germans; they and their relatives had been unable to reclaim the money after the war.

Meili remembered the Swiss banks' response: Either the claimants and claimants' families did not have proper documentation, or the records were lost.

He went back to the shredding room for a second look.

Among the thick black ledgers, dated 1870 to 1965, Meili found two books with entries handwritten in fountain pen that listed transactions in Berlin and other German cities during the 1930s and 1940s.

He hesitated just a moment, then tore several pages out of one ledger and took the other, later smuggling them out of the bank under his jacket.

"It didn't seem right to have these books in this room. These were historical papers," he said.

At home, he and his wife examined the documents at their kitchen table.

They closed the books and went for a walk.

"We talked about what to do. She agreed we should do this--tell people about these papers," Meili said.

'We Will Hunt You Down'

What the ledgers showed were real estate and commercial transactions in Berlin after the Nazis came to power and forced Jews and others to sell their property at rates well below their value.

Meili first telephoned a newspaper to turn the records over. But he says his call was not returned. Then he called the Israeli Embassy in Bern. But when an official asked him to mail the documents, he declined. Then he contacted a local Jewish cultural organization, which turned the documents over to police and provided him a lawyer.

The next day, the police announced an investigation into his actions and his bank, UBS, fired him. While his actions put him under fire in Switzerland, he immediately earned the attention of attorneys involved in the bank lawsuits.

Almost immediately, Meili's bank and others came under fire for allegedly destroying evidence.

In 1998, the year after Meili's discovery, Union Bank of Switzerland and Credit Suisse agreed to a $1.4-billion settlement with Holocaust survivors and their families.

Reaction was swift and deeply divided.

Meili, who had already been fired, now received death threats.

"We will hunt you down," read one letter he received.

"Traitor," read another.

Family members and friends stopped talking to him. Swiss journalists followed his children to school, taking pictures. Some would accuse him of seeking fame and fortune for his actions.

The Swiss government accused him of violating the banking secrecy act, a charge that was later dropped.

But others would call him a lone hero, standing up against one of the most powerful entities in the world--the Swiss banks.

Holocaust survivors hailed Meili's courage, and as his plight at home became known, members of the U.S. Congress began to take an interest. Some had constituents who were due compensation from the banks. They called Meili to Washington to testify. In the end, Congress passed a special bill giving Meili and his family political asylum.

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