Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

January 17, 1997
New York Times

Swiss Bank's Discarded Files Saved by Night Watchman


ZURICH, Switzerland -- Last Thursday began like every other workday for Christoph Meili, a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland.

But as he made his routine checks in the deserted building, Meili was startled at the sight in the bank's shredding room of two large bins on wheels filled to the brim with books and papers.

The contents were unmistakably old and they were a jumble: from oversized ledger books with entries handwritten in fountain pen, to decades-old contracts, to lists of mortgaged buildings in German cities like Berlin and Breslau in the 1930s and 1940s -- the years of Nazi rule in Germany.

"I thought to myself: 'Wait a minute. This is historical material,' " Meili recalled on Thursday in an interview. "There were more than 40 pages about real estate and they were from 1933, 1934, 1937. I saw the dates of payments and credits. I saw street names and numbers, and I saw that some of them were from Berlin."

Within the next 15 minutes, Meili made a fateful decision that he knew would probably cost him his job: he grabbed an armful of books and papers, took them to a Jewish cultural organization the next day, and then went public with what he knew.

Meili's action rocked UBS, Switzerland's biggest bank, which acknowledged on Tuesday that it had made a "deplorable mistake" and may have violated a new Swiss law created to protect material that might shed light on the Holocaust period.

Swiss banks have come under sharp criticism in recent months for their commercial dealings with the Nazis. Families of Holocaust victims have complained that the banks are resisting efforts to track down what happened to the Swiss accounts of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The Swiss popular sentiment on the issue was vividly on display here in Zurich on Thursday, when a local newspaper, Blick, ran a front-page headline in the best tradition of New York City tabloids: "Dear UBS: It stinks!" And Meili has been lionized as the "document hero," besieged by television crews from as far away as Australia. Recounting his story in an interview on Thursday, Meili, a father of two small children, said he had given little thought to the continuing debate about Swiss banks and their ties to the Nazis.

Meili said that as soon as he got a close look at the documents, he became convinced he had been handed a historic duty to act. Quiet and unmoved by all the attention surrounding him, Meili showed no regret about his decision last week and no surprise that he had lost his job and was under police investigation.

"I knew it was a problem," he said of his decision to take documents out of the bank. "But these were documents that were about to be shredded. They were about to be destroyed, like garbage, so I didn't think it would be so bad."

No one knows whether the documents that Meili found will help unravel the financial tangles of the Nazi era.

The bank said this week that it shredded hundreds of pounds of documents before Meili stepped forward. It said that the material had been reviewed by its in-house historian, who found, a spokesman said, that it had "nothing to do with the present discussions about the Holocaust." The historian, who kept no inventory of what had been destroyed, was suspended on Thursday from his job.

The documents that Meili rescued are in the hands of the the police, and are not being shown to the public. But Gian Trepp, a journalist who has written four books on Swiss banking, including a 1987 history of UBS, said that Meili had made a valuable discovery.

According to UBS, the documents being shredded came from a subsidiary called Eidgenoessische Bank. Once one of Switzerland's biggest banks, Eidgenoessische had built up an extensive business with Germany during the Third Reich. When the Third Reich collapsed, the bank collapsed along with it. UBS took over the remains in 1945.

"There were several Swiss banks that cultivated close connections with Germany in the 1930s, and Eidgenoessische was one of them," Trepp said on Thursday. "They attached their fate to the fate of Nazi Germany. What that means is that anything about Eidgenoessische has a possible relevance to the Holocaust."

Meili, 28, says that he had never given much thought to the subject, although he had read about it in the newspapers. Indeed, he did not know any Jews and did not know where to take his information. He first called the Israeli Embassy in Berne, which brusquely told him to either drive to Berne or mail the documents. He refused to do either, and instead contacted the Israeli Cultural Center, a Jewish community center in Zurich that is primarily devoted to child-care.

Werner Rom, president of the Israeli Cultural Center, said that Meili struck him as a person of solid character.

"I wanted to see what kind of a person he was, what kind of a smell he had," Rom recalled.

So he went to Meili's house last Saturday afternoon to sit down with Meili and his wife, Giuseppina.

"They are simple people, but they are good people -- they have a lot of dignity," Rom concluded.

Meili was determined to go public.

"We told him to think this over very carefully, that he would probably lose his job if he went public and that he should think about his wife and children," Rom said.

But Meili was insistent.

"We had to get our version of the story out," he said on Thursday. "My wife was a little worried, and she told me that I had to think of her and of the children, but she said they were clearly very hot," he recalled.

Meili said his father, owner of a small technology company, was also against the idea of going public but could not dissuade him.

Search for a (single) word:

http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/swiss-shredding.html - - - Last modified: Friday, 06-Aug-2004 09:19:20 EDT