Fired Swiss guard faces threats at home, praise abroad

WASHINGTON — The Swiss guard fired for saving wartime documents from a bank's shredder has made an emotional plea to the Senate to protect his family.

Appearing at a hastily called Senate Banking Committee hearing with his wife and two young children at his side, Christoph Meili recounted chilling threats made against his family in the five months since he turned over sensitive Holocaust-era documents that were on the verge of destruction at the Union Bank of Switzerland.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer praised Meili's "courage."

Before he came to the United States this week, Meili said he had received a threat that his children, 2 and 4 years old, would be kidnapped "and held for ransom for the money I'd be getting from the Jews," the 29-year-old former security guard told the committee.

It was only one of hundreds of such threats that he has received, he said.

The hearing came on the eve of the release of a U.S. government report, "The U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II."

After the hearing, Meili said he is weighing an offer to come to the United States to work for World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman.

"I will look at what's going on the next days," he said.

Sitting in the witness chair in the historic Senate Banking Committee hearing room, Meili recounted the night of Jan. 8 when, during his security rounds at the bank, he saw ledgers dating from the 1930s and 1940s in the shredding room.

Recalling a recent Swiss law banning destruction of such documents, Meili took some home and turned them over to a local Jewish organization. He said he took the action weeks after seeing Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List."

Meili was fired, questioned by the police and could face prosecution under Swiss law.

Boxer lauded Meili as a hero.

"Rest assured that you did the right and moral thing in turning in the documents over to the Hebrew Congregation of Zurich and subsequently to the Swiss police," Boxer told Meili.

"The world," Boxer said, "is grateful for your courage."

During the session, Meili was hailed as worthy of the title "righteous gentile" conferred on non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

"You have joined this very august group of people," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who recalled his own father's work prosecuting Nazi bank officials as the lead U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

In his testimony at the hearing, WJC Secretary General Israel Singer urged Meili to accept Bronfman's offer.

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) pledged that if Meili wants to come to the United States for a job, he would do whatever is necessary to ensure that Meili clears any Swiss or American immigration hurdles.

In Zurich, the president of the local Jewish community said he welcomed Bronfman's offer to employ Meili.