A Hero’s Fall From Grace

A Hero’s Fall From Grace

Christoph Meili, the Swiss bank guard whose actions led in 1998 to a $1.25 billion settlement with Holocaust survivors and their heirs, is finally going to get his reward.
Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman is expected to approve as early as next week a $1 million payment to Meili in settlement of a suit he filed against the bank after it had him fired for rescuing incriminating bank documents meant for the shredder.
Meili, 33, who now lives in Orange County, Calif., said the money would come in handy as he embarks on a new life after being served last week with divorce papers by his wife of 12 years, Giuseppina, 31. Under California law, he said, the money will be split evenly with his wife.
He blamed the dissolution of his marriage on the strain he and his wife have been under since seeking refuge in the United States in the spring of 1997.
“We’ve been waiting for the money for years and it’s been hard on my wife,” Meili said. “She has had enough of it and is fed up. She wants to know when we are going to buy a house and live instead of living hand to mouth.”
“It’s been a tremendous strain emotionally on my family,” he continued. “My wife does not go to the speeches I give [about his actions] even when I get a baby-sitter. She does not want to hear anything more about it. Even when I speak on the phone to friends, she runs away. But it is a part of my life and I can’t run away from it. For me it’s very important.”
Giuseppina said she constantly implored her husband to “settle down and move on with our lives.”
“It’s the one thing he couldn’t do,” she said, “and I couldn’t live with the strain of him talking to the newspapers all the time.”
She said their attempts to get a book deal about their experiences never materialized and that they sold rights for a movie deal but nothing came of it.
“These are the things I’m really tired of,” said Giuseppina. “I don’t want to deal with this stuff anymore. I don’t want to deal with these issues. Either they want to make a movie or not, who cares? It’s something I can’t control.”
The strain in their marriage led Giuseppina in September to call the police after she said her husband threatened to kill her and then himself. Meili was arrested and spent two days in jail before Giuseppina bailed him out. Meili said the case was closed after he paid a $500 fine.
Giuseppina said she has made friends and enjoys living in California.
“I love it and wouldn’t want to go anywhere else,” she said.
The Meilis fled to the United States after they were vilified in the Swiss media for their decision to go public with proof that the Union Bank of Switzerland was shredding its Nazi-era documents. Meili also received hate mail and death threats from those who denounced him for betraying his country.
When the Meilis arrived here with their two young children (Miriam, now 9, and David, 7), they had little money and no jobs. Meili and the children knew no English; Giuseppina knew only a little.
Meili said at the time — and repeated last week — that he did not regret retrieving the bank records bound for the shredder. They turned out to include documents of real estate sales in the 1930s the Nazis forced Jews to make for a fraction of their value.
Until that moment, Swiss banks had denied claims that they were hoarding deposits of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
The banks said the claimants had no proof and that Holocaust-era banks records had long before been destroyed.
Meili’s disclosure touched off a bank probe of his actions and he was fired. The Swiss government alleged that he had violated the bank secrecy act, a charge that was later dropped. After he arrived here, Meili filed suit against UBS, which he later dropped when the bank refused to sign the settlement and Jewish leaders promised to reward him with $1 million from the settlement.
In May 1997, Meili testified about his discovery before a hearing of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee. Two months later, President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill unanimously adopted by Congress granting the Meilis and their children permanent U.S. residency status. Giuseppina said they plan to apply for U.S. citizenship at the end of this year.
For the past 22 years, the Meilis have been living in Orange County, where Christoph attends Chapman University, a private college in Southern California that is providing him full tuition while he majors in speech communications.
William Elperin, president of The 1939 Club, a group of Holocaust survivors primarily from Poland, arranged for the club to provide the Meilis with $5,000 a month to cover rent and living expenses.
Meili said he is totally dependent on The 1939 Club’s largess because his concentration on his studies precludes him from getting a job. Giuseppina said she has held some clerical jobs but that it has been “very sporadic” and that she is considering going to school to get a better job.
Giuseppina said she was upset by some interviews with Swiss newspapers in which her husband said he is nearly broke and criticized The 1939 Club for allegedly using him, a charge she said deeply upset club officials. She said she “begged him to stop talking to the media, especially in ways that could be harmful to us.”
“He thinks that people owe him more than he already got, and that is something I do not agree with,” she said. “I think we have been treated well and good.”
Meili said he was misquoted in those articles and never meant to criticize the Jewish community.
“I’m not broke,” he said. “Of course they would like to say that I have troubles because the Swiss don’t like me. For them, this is a good story.
“The problem was that the Swiss were watching me and when I came with no job and I was not financially secure, they used it as propaganda against the Jews, saying that the Jews let him fall. But I am always getting support. I’m living here only because I am supported by the Jewish people. Without their support I wouldn’t be here. I’m thankful” for them.
Looking back on the last five years, Meili said he is not bitter because “everything happened because of me.”
He referred not only to the Swiss bank case but to the $5 billion German foundation and other efforts to help provide a level of justice for Nazi-era wrongs. And Meili said his actions led also to changing “the history of my country.”
“A lot of archives were opened because of me and the Bergier Commission found that the Swiss were deeply involved [with the Nazis] and that the Swiss had companies in Germany that were using slave labor. A lot of stuff emerged because of my actions. It was worth the trouble.”

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