Sitting in an Orange County restaurant, the slight man with wire-rimmed glasses easily blends in. Here he’s just another guy ordering a hamburger and french fries. He seems at home, and this is his home now.
But in conversation, Christoph Meili makes it clear he is no ordinary customer and is not really at home.
“I was just a tool--a pawn in a chess game. You have to have a pawn to win this game,” he says, his accent Swiss. “But I know if I didn’t do this, the Swiss banks would win.”
Four years ago, Meili, then a night watchman at a bank in Zurich, made a decision that changed almost everything in his life. It led to pledges of more than a billion dollars in compensation for wrongs committed during World War II.
Since then he has been called a hero by Holocaust survivors, a traitor by critics in his homeland. He has had to leave alpine Europe for a small house in Southern California. He has become the first Swiss citizen ever granted political asylum in the United States.
Today the onetime watchman is still settling into America, struggling to master English, wary of the future.
Now he’s a college student. Among his courses is history, something he once changed.
Saving, and Changing, History
On Jan. 8, 1997, Christoph Meili was working the swing shift as a security guard at Union Bank of Switzerland. It was a good job, certainly better than his previous one, washing dishes at a restaurant, and a long way from his days as an aimless youth experimenting with drugs.
In those days, life was fine for Meili, then 27. He and his wife, Giuseppina, and their two children had a little house. He was anonymous. Then it all changed.
Meili was making his routine checks in the closed building when he noticed something in the shredding room. Two large bins were filled with dusty books and yellowed papers, awaiting destruction.
At first he thought nothing of it.
But as he continued his rounds, he began to think about the reports he had been hearing on the nightly news--allegations by Nazi victims who had deposited their assets in neutral Switzerland in hopes of saving them from the Germans; they and their relatives had been unable to reclaim the money after the war.
Meili remembered the Swiss banks’ response: Either the claimants and claimants’ families did not have proper documentation, or the records were lost.
He went back to the shredding room for a second look.
Among the thick black ledgers, dated 1870 to 1965, Meili found two books with entries handwritten in fountain pen that listed transactions in Berlin and other German cities during the 1930s and 1940s.
He hesitated just a moment, then tore several pages out of one ledger and took the other, later smuggling them out of the bank under his jacket.
“It didn’t seem right to have these books in this room. These were historical papers,” he said.
At home, he and his wife examined the documents at their kitchen table.
They closed the books and went for a walk.
“We talked about what to do. She agreed we should do this--tell people about these papers,” Meili said.
‘We Will Hunt You Down’
What the ledgers showed were real estate and commercial transactions in Berlin after the Nazis came to power and forced Jews and others to sell their property at rates well below their value.
Meili first telephoned a newspaper to turn the records over. But he says his call was not returned. Then he called the Israeli Embassy in Bern. But when an official asked him to mail the documents, he declined. Then he contacted a local Jewish cultural organization, which turned the documents over to police and provided him a lawyer.
The next day, the police announced an investigation into his actions and his bank, UBS, fired him. While his actions put him under fire in Switzerland, he immediately earned the attention of attorneys involved in the bank lawsuits.
Almost immediately, Meili’s bank and others came under fire for allegedly destroying evidence.
In 1998, the year after Meili’s discovery, Union Bank of Switzerland and Credit Suisse agreed to a $1.4-billion settlement with Holocaust survivors and their families.
Reaction was swift and deeply divided.
Meili, who had already been fired, now received death threats.
“We will hunt you down,” read one letter he received.
“Traitor,” read another.
Family members and friends stopped talking to him. Swiss journalists followed his children to school, taking pictures. Some would accuse him of seeking fame and fortune for his actions.
The Swiss government accused him of violating the banking secrecy act, a charge that was later dropped.
But others would call him a lone hero, standing up against one of the most powerful entities in the world--the Swiss banks.
Holocaust survivors hailed Meili’s courage, and as his plight at home became known, members of the U.S. Congress began to take an interest. Some had constituents who were due compensation from the banks. They called Meili to Washington to testify. In the end, Congress passed a special bill giving Meili and his family political asylum.
Looking back, he says he does not regret the decision in the shredding room that changed his life.
“I wanted the Swiss banks to pay. They are guilty. It was the right thing to do,” he said.
After those heady opening chapters, Meili’s story gets more complicated. Gone now is his naivete, he says. Gone is his easygoing demeanor, say those who know him. Gone is his trust.
He is suspicious of lawyers, reporters, anyone he suspects of having an agenda.
“People say many things to me. They make many promises they don’t keep,” he said.
After coming forward with the ledgers, Meili and his family moved to New York, then New Jersey. They lived in a small two-bedroom apartment.
Unable to speak English fluently and without a high school diploma, much less a college degree, he worked as a doorman on Wall Street.
He sued the Swiss bank that had fired him, but later withdrew the suit at the request of lawyers. They were concerned the lawsuit would interfere with the Holocaust accounts settlement, he says, and they promised he would be paid as a witness when the lawsuits were settled.
The one dividend was his speaking engagements at gatherings of Jewish organizations and at synagogues. Before applauding audiences, he recounted his journey from watchman to whistle-blower.
“Before this,” he confided to them, “I never met a Jewish person.”
He visited Auschwitz with Holocaust survivors, prayed with Orthodox Jews in Manhattan, visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem and was toasted at appearances from New York to California.
Still, when the speaking engagements slowed, he was left with life as a doorman.
In 1998, Meili gave a speech at Whittier Law School in California.
Among those attending were Marilyn Harran, a professor at Chapman University in Orange, and William Elperin, a Los Angeles attorney and president of the 1939 Club, an organization mostly made up of Polish Holocaust survivors and their families.
They heard Meili talk about his motivation for helping Holocaust survivors, noting that he did so shortly after seeing Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List.”
“I had the feeling I had to do something,” he said.
He recounted his actions at the bank and credited the influence of his mother--an independent, strong woman who, he says, challenged him to think for himself. She was the first person he heard contradict the notion that Switzerland was neutral during the war.
Elperin and Harran were inspired by what they heard, and when they learned that Meili had a desire to get a college education, they decided to help.
Harran persuaded Chapman University to offer Meili a full scholarship. The 1939 Club, Elperin pledged, would help Meili with living costs.
“When I called him with the offer, he didn’t believe me,” Elperin said. “He was suspicious. . . . I got the feeling he had been made a lot of promises that weren’t kept.”
In Orange, a city of 128,000, Meili lives in a modest single-family home.
His days are spent studying with the help of a tutor. His English is improving. He closely guards his privacy.
He doesn’t want his home or children photographed. His wife is reluctant to talk about their experiences. The university offers protection for Meili, fielding interview requests.
“We want him to focus on his studies,” says Chapman spokeswoman Ruth Wardell.
His circle of friends is small-- Elperin, lawyers, university officials and a few students. It’s a conscious effort, he says, to protect his family.
“I have more close relationships with lawyers than with regular people,” he said. “They understand what my family faces. Maybe when it’s all through, I’ll have real friends.”
Meili is guarded in what he says, often expressing concern for what will be printed in Switzerland.
“The Swiss press says I’m rich,” he said. “It’s funny. They say I have two cars and a big house.”
The truth? Meili and his family live on the scholarship and the living expenses provided by the 1939 Club. He sold his story to a Hollywood production company for what he says was a small sum, which provided for a quiet trip for his family to see his in-laws in Italy. He still awaits the promised payment from the bank settlement.
Meili has shopped his story to publishing companies. But so far they have shown little interest, he says.
“They say my story has been told.”
He tries to focus on the good that came out of saving the ledgers: compensation long denied. The Swiss banks’ funds are in an account overseen by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman, and exactly how they’ll be distributed is being debated.
“The money should go to the survivors first,” Meili asserts, challenging the claims of Jewish groups seeking part of the settlement on behalf of those who have died. They plan to use the money to assist Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Meili’s outspokenness has soured some on the onetime hero. When one group recently held a dinner honoring those who played key roles in the settlement, Meili was not invited.
If he’s not really comfortable here, Meili knows Switzerland is out of reach too. These days he keeps up with Swiss news through Web sites of newspapers there, as well as chat room discussions about Swiss politics.
He followed the case of Jean Ziegler, a former member of the Swiss parliament who, like himself, testified before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.
Ziegler, who wrote the book “Switzerland, Gold and the Dead,” was charged with treason and sued for endangering national security. The charge and the lawsuit were later dropped.
“There is no life for me there,” Meili says.
A documentary he saw about whistle-blowers helped put his experience in perspective. He knows he’s not alone.
“This is a pattern for whistle-blowers,” he says. “First you are a hero. Then you are suspected. . . . Then you are forgotten.
“But nobody forgets what you did.”