Saving History From the Shredder

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 desc


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.”

So on “a cool day in the wintertime, January 8, 1997,” when Meili was doing his job of checking the different rooms in the vast headquarters of the Union Bank of Switzerland after hours, he unlocked the shredder room and “I saw the stuff, two big containers overfilled with books…old books, really old museum books. I had the feeling that something is wrong.” He examined the ledgers and found that “there was from 1864 to 1970 a complete bank record documenting banking business.”

At first he didn’t think about evidence of Nazi ties. “I like old stuff, you know, museum stuff.” But then he looked more closely and found a ledger from 1945. He remembered the recent newspaper stories about the Volcker Commission, the committee headed by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker commissioned by Swiss banks and Jewish organizations to search for funds deposited by people who became Holocaust victims. The 1945 ledger documented “properties in Berlin in the thirties and forties. I think they belonged to Jewish people.” Suddenly he understood what he had in his hands, “and I more than understood why they’d be shredding them.”

He smuggled the ledgers out of the bank and took them home, intending to turn them over to Jewish organizations or to the Volcker Commission. That turned out to be much harder than he had thought. He remembered reading just two weeks earlier about Senator Alfonse D’Amato coming to Switzerland looking for information about Jewish bank deposits. The newspaper had run an announcement giving a phone number for anyone with information. Meili called the newspaper asking for the phone number, but nobody could give it to him. Next he called the Israeli Embassy in Bern and told someone what he had found. “She told me to mail it to them. I said, ‘No, I can’t mail it, security reasons.'” But they insisted, “so I say, ‘Forget it.'” Then he called a Jewish cultural group in Zurich. They told him to bring the ledgers right over. He brought one and kept some others. “And these people, the same day, they turned it over to the police.”

The police promptly opened an investigation of Meili for violating the bank secrecy act–even though the bank’s intended destruction of records was illegal. The Jewish organization promptly provided a lawyer. “When I came home the lawyer was waiting for me and said we have to go to the police and make a statement. So that’s what I did. The next day the police went public” with their charges, the bank suspended him, and then the chairman of the Union Bank of Switzerland went public with a statement questioning Meili’s motives. Swiss TV showed up at his house, and soon he was receiving letters saying he was being paid by the Mossad (the Israeli CIA).

He wanted to defend himself in public, “but I had no idea; I know nothing about the press, about TV stuff, nothing. And the whole world’s changed from asking about the documents to asking about Meili: Who is Meili? Nobody asks anymore about the documents. But it’s the first time that you have documents where you can see that private Swiss banks were involved with business in Nazi Germany. Before, documents like this did not exist, and when you asked the banks, they said, ‘We have nothing.'”

People began harassing him on the train and in the bars and cafes. People would “speak bad” or “make jokes.” “I speak with them,” he said, “but the Swiss people are believing the headlines. And you can’t explain anytime, all the time. So I can’t anymore take the train. I had to taxi.” He calls it “a tough time.” Unemployed, he started to read everything he could find on Switzerland in World War II. “Fifteen hours a day I worked on this stuff. I get the picture, and I don’t get it. The only thing people in Switzerland are interested in is to be quiet. They don’t get it, they don’t get what they have to do with history.”

Finally he developed his own analysis of what had happened–to him and to Switzerland. The postwar settlement transformed Nazi-occupied Europe. A new generation came to power. “But at the end of the war, the Allies didn’t come to Switzerland.” Switzerland had no denazification, no postwar political reconstruction. As a result, the same kind of people who ran Switzerland when it was cooperating with Nazi Germany are still in power today. “Nazis still in the banks and the insurance companies, in the army and in politics, in the machine factory companies, still the same people,” Meili says. “Nothing happens, nothing changes. The whole Swiss system is still the same. Go to Germany today and they are completely different people than they were during the war. But not here.”

Christoph and Giuseppina now had virtually no friends in Zurich, and nobody would give him a job. He received death threats. The Zurich district attorney was still charging him with violating the bank secrecy laws. He was going into debt. The Jewish cultural center provided a few hundred dollars and promised him a job, but it never materialized.

Then Ed Fagan, a New York attorney representing survivors, found him and asked him to testify in the survivors’ lawsuit. Meili agreed, and then D’Amato invited him to testify in Washington before the Senate Banking Committee. Ostracized, facing a criminal investigation, Meili and his wife decided it was time to take their two children and leave for the United States. But testifying “I know will make me an enemy of Switzerland, a traitor. So I asked D’Amato, please help me. And he created a special law to give me political asylum here.” Meili told his story to D’Amato’s committee in May 1997. Congress passed the law and Clinton signed it in July 1997–making Meili the first Swiss person ever to get political asylum in the United States.

Meili’s father’s comment about getting a job on Wall Street with the help of Jews proved to be both right and wrong. Meili did get a job on Wall Street–but as a bank guard. He and his family moved into an apartment in New Jersey, and he took the PATH train into Manhattan every day. While he was still working there I asked what he did at his job. “Basically nothing,” he said. “I have a uniform, and I stand in a hall, and that’s it. I only say hello and good evening to people. Sometimes they ask me, you know, about the elevators, which floor and so on. I stand exactly seven hours and twenty minutes.”

The job had one benefit: The bank gave him time off–important because he often speaks before Jewish audiences. He has visited Auschwitz with Holocaust survivors, prayed with Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall and given speeches at temples and Jewish organizations from St. Paul to Pittsburgh to Miami to Beverly Hills. Meeting survivors at these events is, of course, an intense experience. Giuseppina explained: “There are certain people, when they start to talk about what happened to them, they scream. They really scream. That’s very hard for us. Then there are other people who don’t stop talking. And there was one woman who told us of how she was in Auschwitz and ashes were coming out from the chimneys of the crematoria and they were choking. Another woman told us, ‘And then they killed my father and the blood was all over the white snow, and this was the red carpet that God prepared for his children.’ Sometimes this is too much for us; you need them to put this away, or to say a prayer instead.”

After more than a year working as a Wall Street bank guard, Meili was rescued by a survivors’ group in Los Angeles–the 1939 Club–that raised money to get him out of the bank lobby and enable him to attend college. In July Meili moved to Southern California with his wife and children, and in September he will start school at Chapman University in Orange County, California–a 30-year-old with imperfect English, two kids and a busy life as a speaker.

He keeps up with the news from Switzerland through the Web sites of the Swiss newspapers. He has been preoccupied with the case of Jean Ziegler, a Socialist member of Parliament from Geneva who, like Meili, testified in the United States before the Senate Banking Committee about Swiss banks’ wartime dealings with Nazis. Ziegler was charged with treason in a lawsuit filed by a group of prominent Swiss conservatives, who described Ziegler’s testimony before Congress as “malicious lies, fabrications, calumny and limitless exaggerations.” Conviction could result in a five-year prison term. In February, however, the Cabinet decided not to lift Ziegler’s parliamentary immunity from prosecution. But the case isn’t finished; he could still be prosecuted when his term in office ends after the close of the current session of Parliament.

Meili is also concerned about the future of the settlement he set in motion. He is an advocate for the survivors in what he sees as a conflict with Jewish organizations, especially the World Jewish Congress. The important thing, he says, “is to get the money to the survivors, not to the organizations.” The World Jewish Congress is claiming part of the settlement on behalf of those who have died, which they plan to use to assist Jewish communities and rebuild synagogues in Eastern Europe and Russia. The key issue is timing–how quickly the settlement is paid. The survivors are mostly poor and very old. They need the money immediately, and every year more of them die. “They are not good at fighting for the money. Once they are gone, the Jewish organizations claim their share of the settlement. I like to support the survivors,” Meili concludes.

Looking back on everything that has happened since that day in 1997 when he unlocked the shredding room, Meili now can sum up what he’s accomplished, and he emphasizes it’s not just Jewish victims of Hitler who have benefited but rather all victimized groups, past, present and future. Because of the evidence Meili found, he says, “for the first time in history we have a case that goes back [more than fifty] years and brings justice today. It means Milosevic has to know that his victims can sue him even twenty years from now. It means that Saddam Hussein has to take care. It means also that blacks here in the United States can also sue. Even Indians. All the time when I was young, I was searching for something to change the world. You have to find a tool, and this is a tool that works. Now we have a tool to bring some justice to the world. And I hope that in the future it also works.”

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