Ex-Swiss bank guard gets 4-year scholarship in California

LOS ANGELES — The Swiss security guard who prevented the shredding of vital Holocaust-era bank records has been awarded a full four-year scholarship at a private American university.

During his studies at Chapman University in Southern California, Christoph Meili and his family will be supported by a group of Holocaust survivors and the Jewish community.

Meili was making his rounds as a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland in January 1997 when he discovered the Holocaust-era documents headed for the shredder.

Meili later stated that he was shocked to discover that the documents included financial records regarding bank accounts and other assets belonging to European Jews, many of whom had perished in the Holocaust.

He secretly turned over some of the records to a Jewish organization in Zurich — a move that created a storm of controversy in Switzerland, cost Meili his job and forced him to flee the country because of threats on his life.

In May 1997, Meili testified about some of the documents he had saved at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.

Two months later, President Clinton signed into law a bill unanimously adopted by Congress granting permanent U.S. residency status to Meili, his wife and their two children.

He subsequently found work as a hotel doorman in Manhattan but told reporters that he hoped one day to attend college.

Last March, he flew to California to speak at a Whittier Law School conference on gold looted by the Nazis — and unwittingly took the first step toward realizing his ambition.

Among his listeners were William Elperin, president of the 1939 Club, an organization of mostly Polish Holocaust survivors and their families, and Marilyn Harran, professor of religion at Chapman University and founder of the school's Holocaust education program.

As a result of their efforts, the university provided the four-year scholarship, covering annual tuition costs of $18,000, and the 1939 Club is offering living expenses for up to five years for Meili, his wife and two young children.

Meili will start his studies next fall at the 130-year-old university, which enrolls about 2,200 students. He has not decided on his major, but has expressed interest in computer science, film, history and pre-law.

"I cannot express how happy I am that Chapman University and the 1939 Club have gone to such lengths to support me and my family," Meili said. "I was just one of the little people who felt I should do what I could to see justice done."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent