And then, Meili says, "there was Schindler's List." Meili saw the film only a few months before the night he found the ledgers in the shredding room. "When I saw them, I saw Schindler sitting on the horse looking into the Krakow ghetto, seeing the Germans take the people away. For me this was the same story--that's the property that has ended up in the Swiss bank. I had the feeling I have to do something."
So on "a cool day in the wintertime, January 8, 1997," when Meili was doing his job of checking the different rooms in the vast headquarters of the Union Bank of Switzerland after hours, he unlocked the shredder room and "I saw the stuff, two big containers overfilled with books...old books, really old museum books. I had the feeling that something is wrong." He examined the ledgers and found that "there was from 1864 to 1970 a complete bank record documenting banking business."
The job had one benefit: The bank gave him time off--important because he often speaks before Jewish audiences. He has visited Auschwitz with Holocaust survivors, prayed with Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall and given speeches at temples and Jewish organizations from St. Paul to Pittsburgh to Miami to Beverly Hills. Meeting survivors at these events is, of course, an intense experience. Giuseppina explained:
"There are certain people, when they start to talk about what happened to them, they scream. They really scream. That's very hard for us. Then there are other people who don't stop talking. And there was one woman who told us of how she was in Auschwitz and ashes were coming out from the chimneys of the crematoria and they were choking. Another woman told us, 'And then they killed my father and the blood was all over the white snow, and this was the red carpet that God prepared for his children.' Sometimes this is too much for us; you need them to put this away, or to say a prayer instead."
Meili is also concerned about the future of the settlement he set in motion. He is an advocate for the survivors in what he sees as a conflict with Jewish organizations, especially the World Jewish Congress. The important thing, he says, "is to get the money to the survivors, not to the organizations." The World Jewish Congress is claiming part of the settlement on behalf of those who have died, which they plan to use to assist Jewish communities and rebuild synagogues in Eastern Europe and Russia. The key issue is timing--how quickly the settlement is paid. The survivors are mostly poor and very old. They need the money immediately, and every year more of them die. "They are not good at fighting for the money. Once they are gone, the Jewish organizations claim their share of the settlement. I like to support the survivors," Meili concludes.