World: Saved from the shredder in a Swiss bank: are the victims still alive?

Louise Jury meets a bank security guard who was accused of treason for helping Nazi victims
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"The story will only be over when the world can see that the documents I found related to real people," Christoph Meili said in London last week.

He was referring to the search for the owners of assets confiscated by the Nazis from their Jewish victims, the subject of the conference he was attending, but Mr Meili's own story is extraordinary enough. Once an anonymous bank security guard, he is the only Swiss national ever to be granted asylum by the United States.

What transformed Mr Meili's life was his decision to rescue Nazi-era documents from the shredder of the Swiss bank where he worked, an act which made him a hero to many Jews, but which caused him to be shunned and abhorred by the country of his birth. The documents now dominate his existence: he has vowed not to let the matter drop until he finds the human faces behind the dusty records he saved. This weekend he is in Germany, pursuing a fragment of history that no one else has cared to touch.

After Switzerland announced investigations into Nazi gold and its wartime connections with the German regime, legislation was passed making it illegal to dispose of any records which might prove relevant to the historical inquiry being carried out by Professor Jean-Francois Bergier.

One night in January this year, Mr Meili found a bundle of papers and old books in the shredding room of the Union Bank of Switzerland. He was puzzled and suspicious. "I had this feeling that something was wrong," he said. "I thought to myself, I had never seen old books like that there and why weren't they going to a museum or something?"

He looked through the boxes. "I see it's bank business from 1875 to 1970. I knew that we had the Task Force [the Swiss government's investigation into Nazi gold], and the Bergier commission. Why weren't these documents going to the commission?"

Mr Meili realised there might be more files: searching further, he found records relating to properties in Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s. "I'd seen the movie Schindler's List two months before, and I remembered Schindler sitting on the horse as the Wehrmacht cleared the buildings. I saw these documents about buildings, and remembered those pictures."

He rescued some of the papers, secreting them in his locker. By the next night, the remaining bundles were gone. He contacted several Jewish organisations in Zurich before he got one to take him seriously, but they said they would have to tell the police. When what he had done came to light, Mr Meili lost his job. Swiss police investigated him for treason and breaking banking secrecy laws. "The financial and criminal police said, 'This is dynamite'."

The Union Bank of Switzerland said it was 99.9 per cent certain the papers had nothing to do with the investigations into gold transactions between Germany and Switzerland, but that did not mean they had no relevance to the question of other looted assets, Mr Meili pointed out. Besides, nobody knew what the shredded documents had contained.

When he went public with his fears, the trouble really began. There were death threats against him, his wife Giuseppina and their two children, Davide, three, and Mirjam, five. "I had letters threatening that they would kill my kids," he said. "They criticised me for being naive, and said I didn't understand what was going on. They said I was a traitor.

"I was shocked when I got the first death threats. I never thought there was such anti-semitism in Switzerland. They don't believe the whole thing. It's really hard for them to learn that Switzerland has a history. They think a neutral Switzerland is all about clean white mountains. Eventually my wife and I had had enough."

After four months without a job in Switzerland, they moved to America, where he is working unhappily, as a security guard still, in New York, and living somewhere he will not specify in New Jersey.

The experience has left him determined to see the story through. Mr Meili has adopted the cause of the survivors of the Nazis as his own, despite no previous connections with the Jewish community. When he visited the Nazi gold conference hosted by the British Government in London last week, he had one message: "Give the Holocaust victims their money back."

The files he rescued related to around 60 properties in Berlin whose former owners may have been Jews forced by the Nazis to sell at prices well below market value. For the past three days Mr Meili has been in the city, trying to trace the original owners. Until he does, no one can be certain that they were victims of the Nazis, but it now seems more likely: speaking from Berlin, Mr Meili said he had found the streets named in the documents. Many were in the old Jewish quarter, where a synagogue is marked on old city maps.

"I want to find the former owners and say, 'Look. That's reality. That's what the documents I found mean.' You can forget them when there are no survivors. But if I can find people who are still living, the world will have to react. They may have to give the houses back. That's my understanding of justice."

He has no regrets about his action early this year, despite the problems it has caused him. His lawyer, Ed Fagan, the man in charge of a class action against private Swiss banks by 23,000 Jews and other victims of the Nazis, believes he has a claim for the distress he suffered, but for the time being Mr Meili has chosen not to pursue it.

"I would do it again, but if I did I would go straight to the press," he said. "The world has a right to see what's going on. It's almost 11 months now. What's happened about those documents I found? Nothing."

The Swiss police have dropped charges against him which carried penalties of up to 15 years in prison or a fine of SFr100,000 (pounds 42,000). Thomas Borer, the Swiss diplomat in charge of the gold investigations, said last week that he would help Mr Meili find work at home, but he is sceptical, and prefers to stay in the US for the time being.

"In America it's more free," he said. "In Switzerland, when you're in the news, you have a problem. People don't respect you. I haven't got the energy to explain why I did what I did all the time."