LOS ANGELES (Jan. 13)
Christoph Meili was living as an average guy when he did an extraordinary thing for the Jewish community and suddenly found himself idolized as a superhero.
But after basking in the community’s adulation, the spotlight ultimately shifted elsewhere — and he had to figure out how to build a new existence in a foreign country.
The strain of this process led to the splitting up of his family, but it also opened up new opportunities for the 33-year-old Meili.
The story begins five years ago, when Meili was working as a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich.
While making his rounds in January 1997, he discovered a stack of ledgers and documents destined for the shredder. He took a closer look and discovered extensive financial records on bank accounts and other assets belonging to Holocaust victims, which the bank had withheld from survivors and heirs.
Meili made an irrevocable decision that night: He took some of the incriminating bank records and turned them over to a Jewish organization in Zurich.
When the deed became public, Meili was fired by the bank.
In May 1997, Meili testified about some of the documents he had saved at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee. Shortly after, he started receiving hate mail and death threats, and he was denounced in much of the Swiss media.
In July of that year, President Clinton signed into law a bill unanimously adopted by Congress granting permanent U.S. residency status to Meili, his wife, Giuseppina, and their two small children.
The family soon arrived in New York, and Meili embarked on a new and strange double life.
Jewish organizations and institutions vied in heaping praise on him. He was lauded as a moral giant and Righteous Gentile, as a simple man who dared confront the avaricious Swiss banks.
As Meili’s English improved, he proved to be an adept speaker.
But away from the glittering banquet circuit, he had to face the reality of surviving as an unskilled and uneducated immigrant in a new country.
He got a job as a security guard at a Manhattan high-rise and rented a small apartment in New Jersey, but his salary was barely enough to make ends meet.
His life took a turn for the better following a 1998 visit to California, where he addressed a Whittier Law School conference in Orange County.
Among the listeners was William Elperin, an attorney, son of Holocaust survivors, and president of the 1939 Club, an organization of mainly Polish Jewish survivors and their families.
In short order, Elperin arranged for a tuition-free scholarship for Meili at the Orange County-based Chapman University, a Christian institution with a major Holocaust education program. Elperin also arranged for a $5,000 monthly stipend for the Meili family from the 1939 Club, as long as Christoph Meili remained in college.
As the Meilis tried to build a new life in California, they were under constant scrutiny by the Swiss media.
Reporters checked regularly on their doings. Some papers labeled Meili a traitor and a Nestbeschmutzer — German for someone who fouls his own nest.
“When I was a child at school, I remember reading cruel headlines in the Swiss papers about this or that murderer,” Giuseppina Meili says. “The headlines about Christoph are worse. They are trying to crucify him.”
The Swiss media hit pay dirt toward the closing months of last year, when they reported that Christoph Meili had threatened to kill himself, had separated from his wife, spent several nights in jail, was flat broke and living in a hostel.
The reports, unfortunately, were pretty much on the mark.
Giuseppina Meili confirmed in a phone interview that during one violent argument, her husband threatened to kill her and the two children and then himself.
She called police, who took Meili away and held him in jail. Giuseppina Meili bailed him out after two days and dropped the charges.
Christoph Meili acknowledges the altercation but says the supposed threats of physical harm were based on a misunderstanding.
However, he and his wife, married in 1989, have since separated. He now lives in a rented room in a private home. His wife has filed for divorce.
During a recent phone interview, Meili said he was unhappy about the separation from his wife and two children, a situation compounded by a lack of friends and a breakup with a new girlfriend.
But he is trying to get on with his life: He is now in his third year in college majoring in speech and communication, and he says he hopes to become a human rights lawyer.
Giuseppina Meili is also getting along, working occasionally as a gardener and waitress. She says she is proud of her children, Miriam, 9, and David, 7, who go to public schools and are integrating into the United States.
She tries to understand what happened to her husband. “He gets frustrated and moody when he doesn’t get any attention,” she says. “Sometimes he is close to depression. It is difficult to understand his thoughts.”
Christoph Meili, who in a lengthy phone interview came across as an intelligent and suffering man, says that much of his resentment is directed against what he perceives as promises of large financial compensations that have never materialized.
Foremost, he points to a 1998 agreement in which Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle all Holocaust-era claims.
As part of this settlement, says Meili, $1 million was to be paid to him, the money to come out of the substantial fees paid to American lawyers in the case.
So far the money, though transferred by the Swiss, has been tied up in lengthy legal proceedings.
Phone inquiries to the New York lawyers who led the case against the Swiss banks were not returned.
Meili also feels that some major Jewish organizations raised considerable money by featuring him as a speaker, but failed to share the proceeds with him.
His criticisms of Jewish organizations have been gleefully picked up by the Swiss media.
Even without the $1 million — which would probably be halved by taxes and lawyers’ fees — Meili might well be thought to be doing alright.
Besides the monthly $5,000 from the 1939 Club, and speaker’s fees, a Beverly Hills fund raiser for him less than two years ago grossed about $125,000, or some $70,000 after taxes.
Elperin advised Meili to invest the money through a money manager — just at the time when the stock market was seeking new lows.
And while the $5,000 monthly stipend might sound adequate, in affluent and expensive Orange County it’s barely enough, says Meili. In any case $4,000 of the stipend goes to his wife and children, he adds.
Given all that has happened to himself and his family since the fateful night he discovered the bank documents, Meili was asked if would he do it again.
“Yes, I would still do it,” he responds. “I knew there would be side effects, and life has not been easy.
“But I have helped lots of people and Switzerland has been forced to deal with its past.”