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Jewish Journal

A Hero’s Struggles

The Swiss whistle-blower who saved Holocaust-era bank records deals with life out of the spotlight.

by Tom Tugend

February 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Christoph Meili

Christoph Meili

"Once you've tasted fame. It's very difficult to live without it."

Christoph Meili was living as an average guy when he did an extraordinary thing and suddenly found himself idolized as a superhero.

After basking in the adulation of the Jewish community for his allotted span, the spotlight shifted, and he had to figure out how to build a new existence in a foreign country.

The strain of this process left him sometimes embittered and split up his family but also opened up new opportunities for the 33-year-old Meili.

The story began five years ago when Meili was working as a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich.

While making his rounds, he discovered a stack of ledgers and documents destined for the shredder. He took a closer look and discovered extensive financial records on bank accounts and other assets belonging to Holocaust victims that the bank had withheld from survivors and heirs.

At that point, Meili made an irrevocable decision. Instead of continuing his rounds, he took some of the incriminating bank records and turned them over to a Jewish organization in Zurich.

When the deed became public, the bank fired Meili. A few months later, when he testified against the Swiss bank before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, he started receiving hate mail and death threats and was denounced in much of the Swiss media.

In July 1997, Congress passed a special act granting permanent residence in the United States to Meili, his wife, Giuseppina, and their two small children.

The family arrived in New York and Meili embarked on his new and strange double life. Jewish organizations and institutions vied in heaping encomiums on him. He was lauded as a moral giant and righteous gentile, as a simple man who dared confront the avaricious Swiss banks. As Meili's English improved, he proved to be an adept speaker.

But away from the glittering banquet circuit, he had to face the reality of surviving as an unskilled and uneducated immigrant in a new country.

He got a job as a security guard at a Manhattan high-rise and rented a small apartment in New Jersey, but his salary was barely enough to make ends meet.

Meili looks back on his 18 months in New York with some bitterness. "The media called me a superhero, but I was used by everyone," he complains. Though he received donations from individual Jews, "the big Jewish organizations did not help me."

His life took a turn for the better following a 1998 visit to California, where he addressed a Whittier Law School conference in Orange County.

Among the listeners was William Elperin, an attorney, son of Holocaust survivors and president of the 1939 Club, an organization of mainly Polish Jewish survivors and their families.

In short order, Elperin arranged for a tuition-free scholarship for Meili at Chapman University in Orange County, a Christian institution with a major Holocaust education program, and a $5,000 monthly stipend for the Meili family from the 1939 Club, as long as Meili remained in college.

Elperin also took Meili's finances in hand and saw to it that he received an adequate speaker's fee when he appeared before Jewish organizations.

As the Meilis tried to build a new life in California, they were under constant scrutiny by the Swiss media. Reporters checked regularly on their doings, and some papers labeled Meili a traitor and a "Nestbeschmutzer" -- someone who fouls his own nest.

"When I was a child at school, I remember reading cruel headlines in the Swiss papers about this or that murderer," Giuseppina Meili says. "The headlines about Christoph are worse, they are trying to crucify him."

The Swiss media hit paydirt toward the closing months of last year, when they reported that Meili had threatened to kill himself, had separated from his wife, spent several nights in jail, was flat broke and living in a hostel.

The reports, unfortunately, were pretty close to the mark. Giuseppina Meili confirmed in a phone interview that during one violent argument, her husband threatened to kill her and the two children and then himself. She called police, who took Meili away -- "without socks and shoes," he says -- and held him in jail. His wife bailed him out after two days and dropped the charges.

The couple, who married in 1989, has separated and Giuseppina Meili has filed for divorce.

Meili acknowledges the altercation, but says the supposed threats of physical harm were based on a misunderstanding. However, he has moved out of the house and lives in a rented room in a private home.

Elperin sees Meili as a man who loves politics, much of it absorbed through the Internet. "I have never seen Christoph get violent; it seems totally out of character," Elperin says.

During a recent phone interview, Meili said he was unhappy about the separation from his wife and two children, compounded by a lack of friends and a breakup with a new girlfriend. But he is trying to get on with his life; is now in his third year in college, majoring in speech and communication, and eventually hopes to become a human rights lawyer.

Giuseppina Meili is also getting along, working occasionally as a gardener and waitress, and is proud of her children, 9-year-old Miriam and 7-year-old David, who go to public schools and have become well- integrated Americans.

She tries to understand what happened to her husband. "He gets frustrated and moody when he doesn't get any attention," she says. "Sometimes he is close to depression. It is difficult to understand his thoughts."

Two experts who have studied the impact of sudden fame on human behavior are not surprised at Meili's mood swings.

Professor Leo Braudy of USC has written a book on the history of fame, from Alexander the Great to Judy Garland, titled, "The Frenzy of Renown."

The attention lavished on a suddenly famous person "becomes like a drug," Braudy says. "When the attention is withdrawn, it is often replaced by a feeling of resentment, a feeling that he has been let down."

Dr. Rex Beaber, who maintains parallel practices as a clinical psychologist and an attorney and has dealt with numerous celebrities in both his professional fields, agrees.

"Once you've tasted fame. It's very difficult to live without it," he says. "It's like the man who for one time is taken to a lavish restaurant and served the finest cuisine. After that, he won't be satisfied going back and eating at McDonald's. He is never the same."

Meili, who in a lengthy phone interview comes across as an intelligent and pained man, says that much of his resentment is directed against what he perceives as promises of large financial compensations that have never materialized.

Foremost, he points to a 1998 agreement, in which Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle all Holocaust-era claims.

As part of this settlement, says Meili, $1 million was to be paid to him, the money to come out of the substantial fees paid to American lawyers in the case. So far the money, though transferred by the Swiss, has been tied up in lengthy legal proceedings.

Edward Fagan, a lead lawyer in the class-action suit against the Swiss banks, confirmed the special $1 million arrangement with Meili.

Meili also believes that some major Jewish organizations raised considerable money by featuring him as a speaker, but failed to share the proceeds with him.

His criticism of Jewish organizations, based partly on complaints he has heard from survivors that much of the Holocaust reparation funds from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have benefited these organizations, rather than individual survivors, has been gleefully picked up by the Swiss media.

Even without the $1 million, which will probably be halved by taxes and lawyers' fees, Meili should be doing all right.

Besides the monthly $5,000 from the 1939 Club and speaking fees, a Beverly Hills fundraiser for him less than two years ago grossed about $125,000, or about $70,000 after taxes.

Elperin advised Meili to invest the money through a money manager just at the moment when the stock market started slipping.

And while the $5,000 monthly stipend ($4,000 of which Meili says goes to his wife and children) sounds adequate, in affluent and expensive Orange County, it is just at the poverty line for a family of four, Meili says.

Elperin believes that the Meili lifestyle is fairly frugal, except for an expensive trip to Italy last year to visit his in-laws.

Given all that has happened to him and his family since the fateful night he discovered the bank documents, would he do it again if faced with the same choice?

"Yes, I would still do it," he says. "I knew there would be side effects, and life has not been easy. But I have helped lots of people and Switzerland has been forced to deal with its past."

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