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Behind the Headlines: for Former Swiss Security Guard, Life Seems Like a Television Movie

May 13, 1997
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Christoph Meili is looking for safe haven — and he hopes to find it in the United States.

Once assured that he can legally live and work here, the former Swiss bank security guard says he can — and will — reveal much more about the Swiss banks’ disposition of Nazi gold than he already has.

Since early January, when the 29-year-old found sensitive Holocaust-era documents in the shredding room of the Union Bank of Switzerland, his life has seemed the stuff of a made-for-television movie.

But for Meili, his wife Giuseppina, 26, and their two children Miriam, 4, and David, 2, the script seems to oscillate between a waking dream and a waking nightmare.

Initially hailed as a hero by the Swiss media and Jews throughout the world, the devout Protestants say they now feel like a family without a country, condemned by more than half their fellow countrymen — according to a recent Swiss newspaper poll — for harming Switzerland’s reputation.

The documents seem to have bearing on allegations that the bank was withholding from their rightful owners the assets of accounts opened by Holocaust victims.

Since early January, when Meili brought the documents to the attention of the Swiss Jewish community, which turned the material over to the police, the young family has found itself at the center of a hurricane of controversy.

Meili immediately lost his job at the bank and the bank’s president suggested on national television that he had nefarious ulterior motives for doing so. The bank official did not specify what those motives might be.

The Swiss government currently is investigating whether to prosecute Meili for breaking Swiss banking secrecy laws, according to the police investigator in charge of the case.

In an interview at the offices of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Meilis, with children in tow, said the experience has left them exhausted and without a place they can feel safe.

They have received tens of threats, Meili said, pale and visibly worn down from a relentless round of visits to newspaper offices and television studios.

Shortly before they left for the United States earlier this month, he said, a man showed up at their door in Baden and handed Giuseppina a note threatening to kidnap their children.

It was then that they knew they had to leave.

“Swiss people think I did a bad thing,” Christoph Meili said in the interview.

Some Swiss think he is disloyal to his country; others believe he is only after fame and fortune.

“Many Swiss people don’t love me and don’t love the Jewish people,” Meili said in his labored English. “When you help the Jewish people, you become a problem.”

Even among Swiss Jews, there seems to be some doubt about whether Meili should stay in the United States.

Werner Rom, the head of Zurich’s Jewish community, said Meili was right about Swiss attitudes, but that he was not sure that his salvation resides in the United States.

“He will not be the star,” Rom said. “Life will be pretty difficult.”

Meili said he initially felt spurred to act to save the documents a few months after watching the film, “Schindler’s List.”

He had also heard a story of Holocaust-era heroism in his own family.

According to his mother, his grandfather had hidden Jews under a bridge at the Swiss-German border and provided them with a steam generator, so they had heat and electricity and were able to hide there safely for many weeks, Meili said.

He didn’t know how many persecuted Jews his grandfather was able to aid, he said, but it was something he never forgot.

Since his arrival in the United States, Meili said, he has had between 20 and 30 job offers, including one from Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of Seagram Company Ltd.

But Meili cannot accept any offer, since he and his family do not yet have permission to stay in the United States after their tourist visas expire.

Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), whose efforts along with the World Jewish Congress led to international inquiries into Switzerland’s wartime role, is trying to expedite the process of obtaining visas for the family, said Meili and the two men escorting him around town.

Accompanying him during his stay are a New York attorney, Edward Fagan, and Rabbi Ronald Gray, who heads the U.S. fund-raising effort for Boys Town Jerusalem, a school for disadvantaged boys in Israel’s capital.

Boys Town will honor Meili in the fall, Gray said, because Meili “did the right thing because he knew it was the right thing to do.”

Gray said he hopes to soon take the family to visit his students in Israel, where he can serve as an inspiration.

The family is being housed in a New York-area apartment provided to them by an anonymous Jewish benefactor.

Other donors are supplying them with food, clothing and social services including language instruction for the couple, Gray said.

With his wife and children at his side, Meili testified about some of the documents he had saved at a May 6 hearing of the Senate Banking Committee.

D’Amato’s praise for Meili continued a few days later, when on the Senate floor, he said, “Here is a young man who acted as a righteous person and instead of being treated as a hero for standing up and doing what is right, he had been treated like a criminal.”

When testifying before the U.S. Senate last week, Meili beseeched the American legislators to “please protect me in the United States and Switzerland.”

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