August 3, 1997

Righteous Among the Nations

Their name is ”Righteous among the Nations”. They are the gentiles or non-jews who gave, or risked their lives amid the horrors of the Holocaust to save thousands of fellow men from extermination. It is an acknowledgement granted by the Department of the Righteous of the Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem.

Beyond Oskar Schindler, the Righteous whom Steven Spielberg lifted to rapid fame, there are many others about whom little, or nothing, is known.

On September 17, 1997, Dr. Yoav Tenembaum wrote in an opinion column of the argentine daily newspaper ”Clarin” about the plan launched by the NGO Casa Argentina en Jerusalem of creating an international foundation to honour the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the swedish diplomat who led tens of thousands of hungarian jews to survival by smuggling the Third Reich’ murderous strategy.

”…many of them (the righteous gentiles) have been cast to oblivion. ¿Who remembers, for example, that portuguese diplomat who, while serving in France, issued the major number of passports possible for jews who, otherwise, would have been sent to the gas chambers?”,asked then Tenembaum.

Who remembers so many others, like Jan and Miep Giep, the dutch couple that gave shelter to Ana Frank and her family up to the day they were discovered, and hid Ana’s diary until the end of the war, to hand it over to her father Frank, the only member of the family who survived the horrors of the concentration camp?

Arístides de Sousa Mendes, portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France -the diplomat mentioned by Tenembaum-issued visas to more than 30.000 refugees desperately in need of that piece of paper with seals and firms.

Who knew, or heard anything about, Jan Karski? He was a polish christian who twice crawled undercover inside the Ghetto of Warsaw and the Belzec concentration camp, and later rendered one of the first eyewitness reports both to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt about the Final Solution that was being carried out and helped speed up the intervention of the Allies to stop mass murders.

During the second world war, only 150 of the 1673 jews of Rhodas under occupation of german forces survived. Out of them, 42 managed to escape death thanks to help provided by Selahattin Ulkumen, former turkish consul in the island thrown into jail for the outrage of pleading to the nazi commander in charge of deportations to Auschwitz.

In August 1940, Sempo Sugihara was consul of Japan in Kovno, Lituania. Challenging instructions of his own government, he issued special transit visas that permitted to save more than 4000 polish and lithuanian jews, who travelled through the Soviet Union up to Vladivostok, and from there on reached Japan. A few days later, the alliance of the Japanese Empire with Germany led to the closure of the consulate. Despite that, Sugihara kept on issuing visas from a hotel room until September 1st, whe he was forced to leave the country.

Heroic stands are, generally, the result of the boldness and audacity of one person. Heroic gestures are rarely performed by a group. Fearlesness, raw material of heroism, pops up as an indivdual impulse just once, at a single and precise moment. However, when the hitlerist hordes arrived in the little french village of Chambon sur Lignon with the aim of grabbing jews, they did not find anyone. Risking their lives, 5000 residents in the Le Chambon area hid a similar quantity of jews, mostly children, in houses and farms of the surroundings. Thanks to this display of boudless courage, all the refugees survived. Andre Trocme and Edouard Theis, ministers of the protestant church, were the leaders of this feat.

The list is long. Each case is food to a novel or full length film. Anaand Jan Pulchalski hid four jews in a potato wharehouse during 17 months. Marion Pritchard, who saved more than one hundred people, mostly children, in Nymegen, Holland, even killed a collaborationist policeman and a friendly gravedigger helped her in hiding the body. Fridrich Born, representative of the International Red Cross in Budapest, challenged the remarkable passivity of that organization vis a vis the Holocaust, and managed to avoid the carnage of thousands by issuing special notes exempting them from forced labour. Alejandro Pou, the uruguayan physician who, while residing in Germany, provided assistance to an eminence of german science, doctor Ludwig Pick. Farmer Szczepan Bradlo and his sons Tadeusz and Antoni allowed 13 people to save their lives during 26 months, 10 days and eight hours, according to the testimony of one of the survivors who performed the pacient and agonizing count, typical of a man sentenced to death. Antoni Bradlo is a priest who for years rendered service inArgentina.

¿Does anybody know anything about them? Surely not. They are not news, have never been, and probably will never be.

Nevertheless, the courage of a 29-year old swiss throws some secondary light about them, and brings them to a flimsy limelight.

Christopher Meili, married and with two children, was a security clerk in the Schweizerische Bankgesellschaft in Zurich. During a rutine inspection round on January 8, 1997, inside the main building of the bank, he found that account books and a large amounts of accounting documents, all of them dated prior to 1945, were being destroyed.

Meili, who worked in the night shift, suspected that this was an undercover operation and denounced the case to a jewish culture institution, backing it with material evidence he managed to lay hands on. His action took place just a few weeks after the passing of a law banning destruction of documents dated to the period of negotiations between the swiss bank and the Adolf Hitler regime.

”I, Christoph Meili, born on April 21, 1968, with residence in Steinstrasse 38D, 5406 Rutihof, Switzerland, hereby declare I was hired by the surveillance firm Wache AG of Zuric, to fulfil a security job at the Union of Swiss Banks in Bahnhofstrasse 25, Zurich”.

”On January 8, 1997, at 4.30 pm, I started my regular shift inside the bank’s main building. I noticed that carts full with old books and portfolios were being taken to the area where documents are usually destroyed”.

”On top of one of the carts I saw two fat accounting books size A3. I opened one of them and noticed that account entries started on February 1945 and included several german chemical companies. Among them, I saw Lack und Farbenfabriken, Seinfenfabriken, Bayerische Sodafabrick”.

”The mentioned books were divided in separate categories: bonds, stocks, miscelaneous and properties. Given the critical nature of the datings, I tore off pages related with properties and replaced the books in the carts, making sure nobody would notice anything. I put the torn pages and a book dated 1920-1926 in my personal closed in the company. At the end of my shift, I took all this stuff to my house”.

”Next day, I saw that the carts in the bank were empty. All their content had been destroyed. I was convinced that this action was illegal. I took then the decision of alerting the population of what was going on, particularly members of the jewish community, to prevent them from being harmed again and allow justice to prevail”.

”I took the documents I had taken from the bank to the Jewish Culture Association in Zurich, whose authorities told me a day later that the case was already in the hands of the police.”

”I have made this affair public, because I wish to testify in support of the interests of my country. I have not received instructions from anybody. I have acted following my own criteria and I am not incited by any speculation of profit”.

So read the testimony rendered four month later -on May 6-to the Banking and Finance Committee of the U.S.A. Senate by a simple night shift guardian who decided to pull out all the stops instead of remaining silent and carry over his shoulders charges of complicity.

The Meili affair had worldwide echoes, when the denunciation was proved correct, amid a general climate of restlessness surrounding the ”dormant accounts”, bank accounts belonging to jews exterminated during the Holocaust, which the swiss banks have refused to disclose for more than fifty years. It was only in 1997, and amid doubts and suspicions, the first list was brought to light, and many consider it insufficient. Specialized groups have estimated the swiss banks may be hoarding around a total of US 7.0 billion belonging to heirs to people murdered by the nazis.

For his action, Meili was fired from his job, received death threats and forced to leave his country, finding refuge in the United States. The Capitol’s high chamber granted permanent residence for him and his family. He is sponsored by the republican senator Alfonse D’Amato.

Although this young swiss is not a Righteous, his case shines as a paradigm that brings to mind those men and women who, led by the single wish of serving those who in need, have risen as upholders of the honour of humanity.

*The author is the Executive Director of the interfaith organization Casa Argentina en Jerusalem and The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.