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Swiss whistle-blower claims poverty

ZURICH, July 16 (JTA) — A former security guard who prevented the shredding of vital Holocaust-era bank records four years ago now claims he is going broke.

In an interview with the Swiss news magazine Facts, Christoph Meili described his financial situation as dire.

“I have not yet received a single dollar” of the $1 million he says he was promised as part of a historic 1998 settlement in which two major Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle all claims surrounding Switzerland’s handling of Holocaust victims’ assets.

By his own admission, however, Meili may have gotten into financial difficulties as a result of lavish spending habits.

Meili became something of a celebrity in Jewish circles after he blew the whistle on a leading Swiss bank.

Meili was making his rounds as a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland in January 1997 when he discovered the Holocaust-era documents headed for the shredder.

Meili later stated that he was shocked to discover that the documents included financial records regarding bank accounts and other assets belonging to European Jews, many of whom had perished in the Holocaust.

He secretly turned over some of the records to a Jewish organization in Zurich — a move that created a storm of controversy in Switzerland, cost Meili his job and forced him to flee the country because of threats on his life.

In May 1997, Meili testified about some of the documents he had saved at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.

Two months later, President Clinton signed into law a bill unanimously adopted by Congress granting permanent U.S. residency status to Meili, his wife and their two children.

In December 1999, a panel probing Swiss banks’ handling of Holocaust-era dormant accounts said it found several instances in which individual banks destroyed records pertinent to its investigation.

In addition to the Meili case, the report issued by the Volcker Commission detailed three other instances in which the Union Bank of Switzerland destroyed documents that may have been relevant to the investigation.

In 1998, Meili accepted a full four-year scholarship at Chapman University, a private university in Southern California.

In addition, a group of Holocaust survivors known as the 1939 Club provided Meili with a $5,000 check each month to help him and his family with living expenses.

Meili also found a substantial source of income on the lecture circuit. At one such appearance last year at the Beverly Hills Hilton, Meili was presented with a $125,000 check.

But, he lamented in the Facts interview, “most of the money is already gone.”

In a hint that his spending habits have not exactly been frugal, Meili told the magazine that during a trip to Italy last year, he spent more than $25,000.

His financial situation came into question earlier this year, when Hans Peter Meier, the director of social welfare in the village of Gebenstorf near Zurich, sent Meili a letter saying that local authorities believed his financial situation enabled him to cover the needs of his mother, who was receiving welfare checks from the village.

Under Swiss law, family members are required to pay back all welfare payments made to close relatives if they can afford to do so.

In April, Meili wrote back to Meier saying it was not financially possible for him to cover his mother’s welfare payments.

He also said that he had no objections if Jewish groups would support his mother.

Meier subsequently asked the Swiss Consul in Los Angeles to investigate Meili’s financial situation.

But the Swiss Foreign Ministry promptly rejected the idea.

“We strongly recommend not to investigate this case because the reputation of Switzerland can be further damaged,” Bernhard Marfurt, a senior adviser to Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss, wrote to Meier.

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