e-mail us
Bank guard enters ranks of ‘righteous gentiles’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
South Orange, N.J.

Christoph Meili was not even born when Hitler’s minions were arresting Jews, confiscating their property and dispatching them to death camps. But the name of the 30-year-old former Swiss bank guard is already being entered into the ranks of the righteous gentiles -- those persons who have taken risks to help Jews.

Two years ago while making his evening rounds at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich, Meili discovered boxes of Holocaust-era documents about to be shredded. After conferring with his wife and gaining her support, he secretly removed three ledger books and took them to a Jewish cultural organization, which turned them over to the police.

Union Bank of Switzerland, the country’s largest bank, at first denied that the records were from the Holocaust period, but later confirmed that they were. The bank also admitted that its chief archivist had previously shredded documents even though Swiss law prohibits the destruction of documents that might relate to World War II-era investigations. Some of the records were deemed relevant to the research of an international panel of historians looking into Switzerland’s dealings with the Nazis.

The bank immediately suspended Meili, after he and the Jewish group called a news conference to expose the findings. Swiss authorities informed him that he may have violated the nation’s secrecy laws and could go to jail. Switzerland has no law to protect whistle blowers, Meili told NCR.

Within a week of the disclosure, he was fired. The Meilis fled to the United States after receiving volumes of hate mail, death threats and a threat that their two toddlers would be kidnapped. Meili testified before the Senate Banking Committee about the dangers he and his family faced were they to return to Switzerland.

Last year President Clinton signed a bill, unanimously adopted by both houses of Congress, granting permanent U.S. resident status to the family. The Meilis are the only Swiss nationals ever to be granted political asylum in the United States.

On March 28 Meili received Seton Hall University’s Humanitarian of the Year Award here. The honor was presented at the sixth annual “Evening of Roses” ceremony, named for Dominican Sr. Rose Thering, a retired professor whose Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies provides teachers with graduate scholarship assistance in Jewish-Christian and Holocaust Studies at Seton Hall.

Meili told NCR he does not see himself as a hero, even if his deed led to a class action suit against the banks by several Holocaust survivors. Swiss banks have agreed to pay survivors $1.45 billion, which Meili said falls far short of the “trillions” of dollars the banks had at their disposal from the seizure of Jewish holdings.

His action came a short time after he saw Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List.” The film’s message is “Keep your eyes open,” Meili said.

“I removed the documents because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “But people don’t always like you when you do the right thing.” He added that Jesus suffered at the hands of his critics.

“The reality of Christianity is that you have to go against the world at times and that brings you into trouble,” Meili said.

Raised a Protestant, Meili said he drifted from religious practice in his teens. But at age 20 he professed his faith in Jesus Christ and became a Pentecostal. In recent years he has worked with Pentecostals and other Christians to feed the poor, visit prisoners and evangelize the elderly through missions in Baden, his native town, and in Zurich.

Meili said that the ledgers that he removed from the bank “are the first evidence that Swiss private banks did business with the banks of the Third Reich. Swiss banks had helped to rebuild German industry after Germany’s defeat in World War I, he said. Moreover, in 1942 when Hitler was financially “empty,” in Meili’s words, it was Swiss banks that loaned him “billions of francs” to sustain the war effort.

“Swiss bankers and Swiss insurance companies wanted Hitler to win. It was good for business. They identified with Hitler’s beliefs,” said Meili, who added that he believes there is “no difference between Swiss and German people.” He also thinks that most Swiss people are in denial about the nation’s wartime past. “They don’t get it,” he said.

Meili’s action has resulted in a new wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism in Switzerland, he said. Talk abounds that Jews are trying to destroy Switzerland’s financial standing in the world and that Jews control much of the economic and political life of the United States, Meili said. He himself has been accused of taking “Jewish money.” Meili is quick to add that he received no money for what he did, only grief. He works in New York as a security guard in a public building.

“Many people today make money from the Holocaust,” he said. “I am not friendly with any Jewish group that wants to use me for fundraising. I am only fighting so that survivors will get their money back.”

In July the Meilis will move to Orange, Calif., where Meili has received a four-year scholarship to Chapman University.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999