Saving History From the Shredder
They call him "the world's most famous bank guard": Christoph Meili, the former night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich who in 1997 rescued from the shredder documents that described the property seized from Holocaust victims--records Swiss banks had denied they had. Meili was fired and hounded out of Switzerland, but his action paved the way for the $1.2 billion settlement that Swiss banks subsequently agreed to pay Holocaust victims and their heirs. A worldwide search for potential beneficiaries of the settlement began in July, and on November 29, Judge Edward Korman of the US District Court in Brooklyn will decide whether the proposed settlement is "fair, adequate and reasonable." If he rules in the affirmative, the payments will begin.
The 31-year-old whose courageous act led to the historic settlement is honored often these days. At a modern dance concert at St. Mark's Church in Manhattan's East Village, the youthful audience was informed that the evening's performance was dedicated to Meili, and that he was present. Afterward he was surrounded by people, some of whom thanked him profusely, some of whom wanted to tell him stories about survivors in their families and some of whom simply shook his hand intensely and silently. When I commented on the warm reception, he laughed and said, "This was nothing compared to the synagogues."
Meili, a slim, intense man who wears wire-rimmed glasses, is an unlikely hero. His life up to the day he found the documents had been an ordinary one. He never knew any Jewish people. He had never taken a stand or engaged in politics or done anything heroic until the day he saw "old books" in the shredding room and decided to take them home and hand them over to Jewish organizations.
When pressed in a conversation about possible influences that led to his dramatic decision, he and his wife, Giuseppina, could only think of three: his mother, who was a Communist; a radical pastor; and the movie Schindler's List. First Meili talks about his parents. When he told his father he was moving to the United States to escape harassment and prosecution for violating the Swiss bank secrecy act, his father told him, "The Jews will get you a job on Wall Street." Meili calls him "the absolute businessman." His mother, in contrast, he calls "the absolute Communist." "She was interested in politics," he said, "and she taught us 'Don't believe everything you're told.' I learned a lot from my mother"--including that the Swiss had helped the Nazis during World War II. This contradicted official Swiss ideology, which held that Switzerland observed strict neutrality, a claim that went almost completely unchallenged in public discourse until the past few years.
Meili's parents divorced when he was 10--unusual in Switzerland. He lived with his mother until he was 16. He recalled his mother taking him to a Communist center in Zurich, a place she went to "all the time." She took him to see a "special movie, The Boat Is Full," a documentary about the Swiss refusal during World War II to admit refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.
Giuseppina, an Italian who grew up in Switzerland, agreed with him the day he brought the bank ledgers home that he had to make them public. She cited a more recent influence--a radical pastor named Sieber, who works with young people with drug problems. Giuseppina says that the pastor preached that "if you are going through the world without faith, you are in the frame"--the frame of law and custom. "But if you are going with the cross, you are out of the frame, you don't have to follow anybody, you don't have to believe anybody. If you think the laws are wrong, you don't have to follow them." She added, "He's a little bit of a revolutionary." Christoph and Giuseppina went to his church until they had children several years ago. They had no personal relationship with him and never met him, but his sermons gave them the idea of resistance to unjust authority.
And then, Meili says, "there was Schindler's List." Meili saw the film only a few months before the night he found the ledgers in the shredding room. "When I saw them, I saw Schindler sitting on the horse looking into the Krakow ghetto, seeing the Germans take the people away. For me this was the same story--that's the property that has ended up in the Swiss bank. I had the feeling I have to do something."