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Guard who turned over Swiss banking files seeks protection in U.S. Senate visit

Christophe Meili

May 7, 1997
Web posted at: 9:06 p.m. EDT (0106 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A whistle-blowing Swiss bank guard who lost his job for saving Holocaust-era documents from the shredder says he feels "like a criminal" in Switzerland and hasn't been able to get a job in his native country.

Christophe Meili, 29, told the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday that he has received death threats and that someone threatened to kidnap his children, saying he could pay the ransom "with money from Jews."

And he says Swiss police won't help him.

"Please protect me in the USA and in Switzerland," Meili said in shaky English. "I think I become great problem in Switzerland. I have a woman and two little children and no future."

Union Bank of Switzerland

Meili has lost his job as a security guard at the Zurich branch of the Union Bank of Switzerland -- effective at the end of April -- for something many in the world think was noble, even heroic. He also has been questioned by the authorities about possible violations of secrecy laws.

Meili was a business student working nights as a security guard at UBS in January when he discovered what he described as "very old documents and books" waiting to be shredded. He also found two thick books with "1945 through 1965" written on them.

He took some of the documents and gave them to the Hebrew Congregation of Zurich because he thought they might relate to investigations into assets held by depositors who died in Nazi death camps.

Inspired by 'Schindler's List'

Swiss law forbids destruction of documents that might relate to World War II era investigations, but UBS claimed the documents were not related to victims of the Holocaust.

Meili thought otherwise.

Meili & children

"I was convinced that documents were being destroyed illegally," he said Tuesday through a translator. "I wished to prevent the Swiss people from suffering harm and to make the documents and actions known to the public.

"I also wanted the oppressed Jewish populations, the Holocaust victims, to not again be left behind in their search for documentation at the Swiss banks and to get justice. I had the impression that parts of the materials being searched for were being destroyed."

Meili told the Senate committee he was inspired to take the documents after seeing the movie "Schindler's List." He said he felt that he "must take responsibility and do something."

Meili, who was offered a job Monday by the World Jewish Congress, was praised by members of the committee who said he should be hailed as a hero in Switzerland and that the officials at Union Bank of Switzerland should be ashamed of the way he has been treated.

'I regard Jews as my brothers'

Meili and family

Meili is in the United States to receive an award from the Boys Town Jerusalem Foundation of America, which helps to educate underprivileged boys from around the world at a school in Jerusalem.

"This man did what he did strictly as a matter of conscience," says Rabbi Ronald Gray, head of the foundation. "He did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. We hope there will be others who will be inspired by him."

The award will be formally presented to Meili on October 28, although it is unclear if he will remain in the United States until then.

Boys Town Jerusalem is not the first Jewish group to honor Meili. The Anti-Defamation League had previously opened a bank account worth $30,000 to help him pay his legal expenses.

Meili's presence in New York is of particular interest to Edward Fagan, the lead attorney in a pending class-action lawsuit against the Swiss banks for withholding funds from descendants of depositors who died in the Holocaust.

"His presence may help the case," Fagan said, although he says he has not yet taken a deposition from Meili.

In a USA Today interview in February, Meili said, "I am convinced I did the right thing and moral thing. I'm a Bible-reading Christian and regard Jews as my brothers."

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