Swiss guard granted U.S. status for actions

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WASHINGTON — The night watchman who rescued Holocaust-era documents from the shredder of a Swiss bank can now call the United States his home.

President Clinton this week signed into law a bill unanimously adopted by both houses of Congress granting permanent U.S. residency status to Christoph Meili and his family.

The move came on the heels of an announcement this week by the Union Bank of Switzerland that most of the documents recovered by Meili concern property maintenance and have nothing to do with dormant accounts of possible Holocaust victims.

Meili, 29, was making his rounds as a night watchman at Union Bank of Switzerland in January when he discovered carts of Holocaust-era documents headed for the paper shredder.

He secretly turned over some of them to a Jewish organization in Zurich — a move that created a storm of controversy in Switzerland and cost Meili his job.

After months of refusing to disclose the content of the documents, the bank said on Monday that they were records of 31 properties held by a subsidiary bank in Germany, including three whose previous owners might have been Jewish.

Reacting to the bank's announcement at a Capitol Hill news conference convened by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) on Wednesday, Meili accused the bank of failing to disclose the contents of all the files he rescued.

He showed reporters a list of what he said were more than 45 Jewish-owned properties from the 1930s to 1945.

"UBS is not telling the truth," Meili said.

The bank, however, stuck by its assertion, saying the records related to properties owned by Eidgenoessische Bank, a Swiss bank it bought in 1945, and bore no relation to customer accounts.

The relevance of the files will ultimately be determined by the Bergier Commission — a panel of historians examining the Swiss role in World War II. In July, the commission's secretary-general said the rescued documents will help the investigation.

D'Amato, however, threatened punitive measures against the Swiss banking giant unless it provides a full accounting of its actions and apologizes to Meili.

In a letter to Swiss President Arnold Koller, D'Amato, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, threatened to find a way to suspend the bank's authority to operate in the United States.

He also said he might request the departments of Justice and State to investigate whether the bank violated the terms of post-war agreements with the Allies dealing with the return of all German accounts.

"We want to know what actions the Swiss government will take to right this injustice, what actions will be taken to hold him harmless for the fact that he has been without the ability to support his family and has been denied just compensation."