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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

Bingham issued the novelist a false travel document under the name "Wetcheek," the literal translation of Feuchtwanger from the German. In mid-September 1940 "Wetcheek" and his wife, Marta, left Marseille with several other refugees; he made his way to New York City aboard the SS Excalibur. (His wife followed on a separate ship.) When Feuchtwanger disembarked on October 5, the New York Times reported that he spoke "repeatedly of unidentified American friends who seemed to turn up miraculously in various parts of France to aid him in crucial moments in his flight." (Feuchtwanger settled in the Los Angeles area, where he continued to write. He died in 1958, at the age of 74.)

The State Department, of course, knew precisely who Feuchtwanger's American friends were. Soon after the writer left Marseille, Secretary of State Cordell Hull wired the U.S. Embassy at Vichy: "[T]his Government can not repeat not countenance the activities as reported of...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."

Bingham's boss in Marseille, Consul General Hugh Fullerton, advised Fry to leave the country. Fry declined. For his part, Bingham surreptitiously broadened his work with Fry—setting him up, for example, with a police captain who was sympathetic to escape operations. The vice consul "had no hesitation to work with Fry," says Pierre Sauvage, a filmmaker who is gathering material for a documentary on Fry's work in Marseille. "If Bingham could find a way of bending the rules, of being accommodating to somebody who wanted to get out, he did that."

Through the summer of 1940, Bingham also gave secret shelter to Heinrich Mann, brother of novelist Thomas Mann; the novelist's son, Golo, also left Europe with Bingham's help. Both "have repeatedly spoken to me about your exceptional kindness and incalculable help to them in their recent need and danger," Thomas Mann wrote Bingham on October 27, 1940. "My feeling of indebtedness and gratitude to you is very great."

Bingham also visited Marc Chagall, a Jew, at Chagall's home in the Provençal village of Gordes and persuaded him to accept a visa and flee to the United States; their friendship continued for the rest of their lives. At the consulate, Bingham continued to issue visas and travel papers, which in many cases replaced confiscated passports. Fred Buch, an engineer from Austria, received an exit visa and temporary travel documents; he left Marseille with his wife and two children and settled in California. "God, it was such a relief," Buch told Sauvage in a 1997 interview. "Such a sweet voice. You felt so safe there in the consulate when he was there. You felt a new life will start." Bingham "looked like an angel, only without wings," Buch added. "The angel of liberation."

State Department files show that Bingham issued dozens of visas daily, and many other elements of his work—sheltering refugees, writing travel papers, meeting with escape groups—were not always recorded. "My father had to keep what he was doing secret, but I think people suspected it," says William Bingham. "From his perspective, what he was doing by defying the direct orders [of his own government] was complying with international law."

Bingham's next act, however, was even more provocative: with winter approaching, he began pressing for U.S. support for relief efforts at the detention camps around Marseille.

In 1940, there were about two dozen such camps in Vichy France, many of them having been originally set up in the 1930s for émigrés from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Even before the Nazis took Paris that June, French authorities ordered European foreigners to report for internment on the ground that the criminals, spies and anti-government operatives among them had to be weeded out. From November 27 to December 1, Bingham visited camps at Gurs, Le Vernet, Argelès-sur-Mer, Agde and Les Milles, accompanied by an official who was coordinating the work of 20 international relief organizations in Marseille.

French authorities actually welcomed such relief missions, because local officials lacked the infrastructure and supplies to care for the inmates adequately. In a report Bingham wrote of his travels, he cited "immigration problems" as the reason for his trip, but his account portrays a gathering tragedy for the 46,000 camp inmates. Gurs, one of the largest camps, he wrote, held about 14,000 people, including 5,000 women and 1,000 children, and many of the detainees were diseased, malnourished or badly housed. Three hundred inmates had died there in November, 150 in the first ten days of December. "When the shortage of food becomes more acute, the camps may be used as centers of unrest," Bingham wrote. "Resulting riots may be used if desired as an excuse for intervention and military occupation of the whole of France."

When Bingham's report was forwarded to Secretary of State Hull on December 20, 1940, it was preceded by a caveat from Bingham's boss, Consul General Fullerton: "Mr. Bingham's trip to the camps was in nowise official and under instructions from the Department of State," Fullerton had written. "It was, in fact, made at his own expense."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus