Saving the Jews of Nazi France

As Jews in France tried to flee the Nazi occupation, Harry Bingham, an American diplomat, sped them to safety

In just ten months, Bingham (in Marseille) provided aid, including travel documents, to some 2,500 Jewish refugees-thereby effectively ending his career. (USHMM, Courtesy of Hiram Bingham)
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An internationally known german novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger had been a harsh critic of Adolf Hitler since the 1920s. One of his novels, The Oppermanns, was a thinly veiled exposé of Nazi brutality. He called the Führer's Mein Kampf a 140,000-word book with 140,000 mistakes. "The Nazis had denounced me as Enemy Number One," he once said. They also stripped him of his German citizenship and publicly burned his books.

In July 1940, the Nazis had just occupied Paris, and southeastern France—where Feuchtwanger was living—was controlled by a French government with Nazi sympathies. As the French authorities in the south began rounding up the foreigners in their midst, Feuchtwanger found himself in a lightly guarded detention camp near Nîmes, fearing imminent transfer to the Gestapo. On the afternoon of Sunday, July 21, he took a walk by a swimming hole where inmates were allowed to bathe, debating whether to flee the camp or wait for exit papers that the French had promised.

Suddenly, he spotted a woman he knew along the road to the camp and hurried over. "I have been waiting for you here," she said, shepherding him to a car. A few hours later, the novelist was safely in Marseille, enjoying the hospitality of a low-ranking U.S. diplomat named Hiram Bingham IV. Bingham, 37, was descended from prominent politicians, social scientists and missionaries. His grandfather's book A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands presaged James Michener's Hawaii. His father, Hiram Bingham III, was a renowned explorer and, later, a U.S. senator. After a prep school and Ivy League education, Hiram, known as Harry, seemed destined for a brilliant career in the Foreign Service.

But as World War II approached, Bingham made a series of life-altering choices. By sheltering Feuchtwanger in his private villa, Bingham violated both French law and U.S. policy. To draw attention to hunger and disease in the French camps, he challenged indifference and anti-Semitism among his State Department superiors. In speeding up visa and travel documents at the Marseille consulate, he disobeyed orders from Washington. In all, an estimated 2,500 refugees were able to flee to safety because of Bingham's help. Some of his beneficiaries were famous—Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst—but most were not.

Bingham accomplished all this in a mere ten months—until the State Department summarily transferred him out of France. By the end of World War II, his hopes of becoming an ambassador had been dashed. At the age of 42, after more than ten years in the Foreign Service, he moved with his wife and growing family to the farm they owned in Salem, Connecticut, where he spent the rest of his days painting landscapes and Chagallesque abstracts, playing the cello and dabbling in business ventures that never amounted to much.

When Bingham died there in 1988, at 84, the stories about his service in Marseille remained untold. William Bingham, 54, the youngest of his 11 children, says he and his siblings "never knew why his career had soured." But after their mother, Rose, died in 1996, at 87, they found out.

While cleaning out a dusty closet behind the main fireplace in the 18th-century farmhouse, William discovered a tightly bound bundle of documents that outlined his father's wartime service. Thus began a campaign to vindicate his father. And as his rescue efforts came to light, he was embraced by the same government that had cast him aside.

Hiram Bingham IV was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1903. His mother, Alfreda Mit­chell, was a granddaughter of Charles L. Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Co. Harry's father, Hiram Bingham III, had no interest in following his parents as Protestant missionaries in the South Pacific. Starting in 1911, he led a series of expeditions to Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes; his travelogue, Lost City of the Incas, made him world-renowned. After his South American adventures, the senior Bingham entered the Army in 1917 as an aviator, achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and was a flight instructor in France. A Republican, he served Connecticut as lieutenant governor and U.S. senator, and he was chairman of the McCarthy-era Civil Service Commission Loyalty Review Board.

His seven sons vied to impress him. Harry, the second eldest, and his brother Jonathan (who would become a Democratic congressman from New York) attended the Groton School in Massachusetts, whose illustrious alumni included Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harry had a bookish appearance but excelled at tennis, football, gymnastics and other sports.

Those who knew Harry said he spoke with animation and conviction after overcoming an initial reserve. Family members recalled that he always defended younger students from bullying upperclassmen. His brothers sometimes considered him pompous, perhaps too serious. His schoolmates called him "righteous Bingham."


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