Editor’s Note: The U.S. Postal Service recently issued a stamp honoring Hiram Bingham IV, a U.S. vice-consul in Vichy France, for his work with journalist Varian Fry in rescuing Jewish refugees from the Nazis during 1940-1941.
The Capitol Hill ceremony unveiling the stamp image was held under the auspices of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and Wally Findlay Galleries International, in cooperation with U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos. Keynote speakers included U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman and Dr. Bella Meyer, art historian and granddaughter of Marc Chagall, who was rescued by Fry And Bingham.
“To Harry Bingham, my partner in the ‘crime’ of saving lives. -Varian Fry”
That inscription appears in a tattered copy of Fry’s book, Surrender on Demand, which has sat for decades on a bookshelf in the Bingham home in Salem, Connecticut. The book recounts how Fry organized the rescue of more than 2,000 Jewish refugees from Vichy France in 1940-41.
What it does not describe is the role played in the rescue mission by U.S. diplomat Hiram (Harry) Bingham IV. Fry wrote the book in the early 1940’s, when Bingham was still serving in the diplomatic corps, and disclosure of what Bingham had done in France, in direct defiance of the U.S. government, would have endangered his career.
Even in later years, however, Bingham’s modest nature prevented him from speaking of his work with Fry, leaving his eleven children with little more than a puzzling inscription that seemed to having nothing to do with the father they knew. It was not until 1993, five years after Bingham’s death, that his youngest son, Bill, discovered a bundle of letters and other documents stashed away in an old cupboard behind a fireplace in the family home. Those papers revealed that their father was, in fact, one of the very few American heroes of the Holocaust.
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Harry Bingham was born in 1903 to a family of wealth, power, and more than its share of fame. His father, Hiram Bingham III, was the archaeologist who in 1911 discovered the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, in Peru. According to some reports, he was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood hero Indiana Jones. Bingham III later served as governor of Connecticut and as United States Senator from the Nutmeg State. Harry’s cousinJonathan (Jack) Bingham was a United States Congressman. Bingham III’s wife Alfreda was the granddaughter of Charles Tiffany, founder of the Tiffany jewelry dynasty.
Harry chose to enter the diplomatic service and in 1936 was posted as a U.S. vice consul in Marseille, France. There he would soon come face to face with the plight of Hitler’s Jewish victims.
Since the 1920’s, U.S. immigration policy had been governed by a strict quota system. The annual combined quota for Germany and Austria, for example, was just 27,370 persons, and for Poland just 6,542. Even those meager allotments were almost always under-filled, because American consular officials abroad were under instructions from the State Department to take the most cautious possible approach when they received requests for immigration visas from refugees seeking to flee the ravages of Nazism.
In one infamous memorandum spelling out this policy, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long told the consuls to “postpone and postpone and postpone” approving visa applications from Jewish refugees. Long, an old friend and political ally of President Franklin Roosevelt, was appointed to his post by FDR and his actions regarding immigration were consistent with the president’s wishes.
Harry Bingham, though a State Department employee, was convinced this policy was immoral, and when the opportunity to aid Jewish refugees presented itself, he chose to follow his conscience, not Breckinridge Long.
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During the months following the German conquest of France in June 1940, thousands of refugees, many of them Jews, fled to southern France to avoid capture by the Nazis, joining the many others who had fled to the area previously. Among the refugees were many prominent political dissidents, intellectuals, writers, and artists. On June 22, Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime signed an agreement with the Nazis, agreeing to “surrender on demand” anyone whom the Germans were pursuing.
Three days later, in New York City, American friends and colleagues of the refugees met to establish the Emergency Rescue Committee, with the hope of bringing the most prominent cultural figures among the refugees to the United States. With help from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Emergency Rescue Committee secured the administration’s reluctant agreement to provide emergency visas to two hundred prominent artists and intellectuals and their families. Varian Fry, a Harvard-trained classics scholar and foreign affairs journalist, volunteered to travel to Vichy France to organize the exodus.
While stationed in Germany on a journalistic assignment in 1935, Fry had witnessed first-hand the Nazi mob violence against Berlin’s Jews. It was that experience which later led him to become involved with the Emergency Rescue Committee. In August 1940, he arrived in Vichy France with $3,000 taped to his leg to hide it from the Gestapo and a list of 200 endangered individuals.
It was not long before Fry and Bingham – the journalist on a mission and the consular officer with a conscience – began to collaborate. They were introduced by Frank Bohn, who had been sent to France by the American Federation of Labor to facilitate the escape of anti-Nazi European labor leaders. In defiance of the State Department, Bingham began providing Fry with documents needed to protect refugees, such as affidavits in lieu of passports and travel documents.
Bingham also knowingly granted visas to a number of women whom one of Fry’s associates, an American ambulance driver named Charles Fawcett, had fraudulently married so they would be released from Vichy concentration camps and qualify for residence in the United States. An official at the U.S. Consulate in Lisbon, through which many of the would-be immigrants passed, later recalled how puzzled she was at the number of “Mrs. Fawcetts” among the applications she processed.
In Surrender on Demand, which was published while Bingham was still in the diplomatic service, Fry tried to protect Bingham by quoting Frank Bohn as saying that Harry “does everything he can to help us, within American law.” Years later, when Bingham’s son Bill asked his mother about his father’s actions in France, she would likewise say, “Your father never broke the law.”
“But when I told this to Charles Fawcett,” Bill notes, “he laughed and laughed and said, ‘Your father broke every rule in the book.’ ”
Bingham was knowingly endangering himself. If the State Department discovered what he was doing, his career would be ruined. Physical danger was also a possibility; having diplomatic status was no guarantee of safety under the Nazis. The Czech consul in Marseilles, Vladimir Vochoc, was jailed by the Vichy authorities for helping anti-Nazi activists flee France, and spent two months in prison before he managed to escape. The Brazilian ambassador to France, Luis de Souza Dantas, was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 for issuing visas to refugees, and was deported to Germany. The Mexican consul-general in Paris, Gilberto Bosques, was placed under house arrest because of his efforts to help Jewish refugees.
Despite the dangers, Bingham played a critical role in the Fry rescue mission. He used his country villa for meetings of the rescue activists, and for hiding refugees, such as Golo Mann (Thomas Mann, Jr.) and Lion Feuchtwanger, the famous Czech-German Jewish novelist. Bingham arranged for Feuchtwanger to be smuggled out of an internment camp disguised in women’s clothing, and drove him past German checkpoints by saying he was Bingham’s mother-in-law from Germany. Bingham sheltered him in his home until he could smuggle him out of the country.
When Fry and a number of his coworkers were arrested by the Vichy authorities, Bingham personally intervened to secure their release.
Altogether, the rescue network helped save more than 2,000 refugees, most of them Jews, including such famous artists as Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Jacques Lipschitz, as well as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof, writers Franz Werfel and Arthur Koestler, architect Walter Gropius, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism.
The process of getting Chagall out of France exemplified the complications and hazards of what Fry and Bingham were doing. They met with Chagall in Bingham’s villa in December 1940 to plan his escape, and then escorted the painter to the U.S. Consulate in Marseille, where Bingham quickly granted him an immigration visa, even though Chagall did not possess the required affidavits.
Unbeknownst to Fry, the Museum of Modern Art had already asked the State Department to grant Chagall a visa back in November – but it took until February 1941 before it was processed.
“In other words,” Fry noted in his diary, “it took the Department three months to grant him an ’emergency’ visa, whereas [Bingham in] the Consulate only required a day or so to give him an ordinary immigration visa.”
In April, the Chagalls moved to a hotel in Marseille in preparation for their departure from France, but when the Vichy police swept through the city’s hotels, arresting all Jews, Chagall found himself in prison. Through sheer audacity, Fry and Bingham cajoled and threatened police officials to bring about the artist’s release. Chagall and his wife, Bella, reached Lisbon on May 11, but his paintings were held up by Spanish customs authorities, under pressure from the Gestapo.
While Chagall’s daughter Ida tried to secure the artwork, her husband Michel was arrested trying to cross the French border into Spain, and had to be smuggled out of prison. Ida, Michel, and the crates of artwork eventually made it across the Atlantic in a typhoid-ridden journey on a barely-seaworthy cargo ship that avoided German torpedoes on the way to America, though it was hit and sunk on the way back.
Bingham understood the importance to Western civilization of rescuing these cultural luminaries, and he did everything possible to assist Fry’s mission. But he also issued numerous visas to ordinary refugees who had no claim to fame, and who would have been turned away by other consular officials. He did so for one simple reason, as Fred Buch, a refugee whom Bingham rescued, put it: “He was a mensch.”
Gitta Schachter, a refugee in France who managed to gain entry to the U.S. Virgin Islands thanks to Bingham, said: “When he reaches Paradise, Mr. Bingham will find a multitude of greeters welcoming him and thanking him!” Her youngest son, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, became a prominent figure in the American Jewish Renewal movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Another family Bingham rescued were the Leichters, Austrian refugees in France whose son Franz grew up to become a six-term New York State Senator.
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As word spread of the Fry-Bingham rescue activity, furious German and French officials complained to the State Department (the U.S. was still officially neutral in World War II, prior to Pearl Harbor). Secretary of State Cordell Hull responded with a telegram, in September 1940, to the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to “inform Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry [that] this Government can not, repeat not, countenance the activities of Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry and other persons, however well-meaning their motives may be, in carrying on activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.”
The secretary of state also sent a telegram to Fry, pressing him to “return immediately” to the United States in view of “local developments,” meaning the opposition of the Germans and French. Fry soon discovered that Hull’s position had also been communicated to the Vichy police, and Fry believed a recent police raid on his office was the result of the French authorities concluding that they were free to act against him now that the Roosevelt administration had “disowned” Fry.
Instead of heeding Hull’s directive, Bingham arranged for Fry to meet an officer in the Marseilles police, Capt. DuBois, who was strongly anti-Nazi and became a major source of inside information about arrests of refugees and escape opportunities.
Time, however, was running out on the rescue activists. Determined to avoid irritating American-German relations, the State Department in early 1941 revoked Fry’s passport and shortly afterward transferred Bingham to Lisbon. It then moved him out of the European theater altogether, sending him far off to the U.S. embassy in Argentina.
But Bingham refused to be complacent, further jeopardizing his diplomatic career by challenging the State Department’s indifference to Argentine harboring of Nazi war criminals. Bingham believed that Nazi gold, loot, and personnel were being transferred to Argentina and Chile via submarine at the end of the war, in collusion with Nazi elements in Latin America. When the State Department shut down his efforts to investigate the matter, he resigned in protest, thereby losing his pension and sacrificing his career.
During the postwar years, Bingham lived a quiet, unassuming life in rural Connecticut, raising his family and struggling to manage as a small businessman. When he passed away in 1988, neither the public nor his own children knew of his lifesaving work in Vichy France.
An unknown hero of the Holocaust, Hiram Bingham IV was a man of unquenchable courage and conscience, whose noble deeds live on, in the lives of the people he saved, and as an inspiration for future generations.
Dr. Rafael Medoff