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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In Washington, immigration policy remained unchanged. Later that month, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to the State Department to ask what could be done about France's refugee crisis; she may not have seen Bingham's report, but she was still in close communication with the Emergency Rescue Committee. On January 10, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles blamed the French: "The French government has been unwilling or has failed to grant the required exit permits with the consequence that these persons have not been able to proceed to the United States and remain on French territory where they must be cared for and fed," he wrote, then added pointedly: "I believe, despite some critics who are not aware of the facts, the machinery we have set up to deal with the emergency refugee problem is functioning effectively and well."

But Bingham, despite the State Department's reluctance, continued to work with relief organizations outside the government. With his help, Martha Sharp of the Unitarian Service Committee and others assembled 32 refugees, including 25 children, and got them onto a ship that arrived in New York, on December 23.

Robert C. Dexter, a director of the Boston-based committee, wrote to Hull to commend "the sympathetic and understanding way in which Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham, Jr. carried out his responsibilities at the consulate....Mrs. Sharp reports that his whole conduct made other Americans proud of the way he represents their government to foreigners coming before him for assistance."

Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state who had been adamant about closing the gates to immigrants, replied that "the Department is always glad to learn that its officers abroad are proving themselves of service to American citizens and their interests." Long's tepid response reflected growing concern among Bingham's superiors about his activities. "In general, Bingham was stretching the boundaries," says historian Richard Breitman, who has written extensively on the period. "Bingham was on one side, and Long and the majority of consuls were on the other side."

In the winter of 1941, one of Bingham's Marseille superiors, William L. Peck, wrote a memo describing Peck's efforts to give humanitarian consideration "to aged people, especially those in the camps. These are the real sufferers and the ones who are dying off." He then added: "The young ones may be suffering, but the history of their race shows that suffering does not kill many of them. Furthermore, the old people will not reproduce and can do our country no harm, provided there is adequate evidence of support." Such an expression of anti-Semitism within the government, which was forwarded to the secretary of state, as well as to the consulates in Lyon and Nice, was not unusual during the war, Breitman says; overt anti-Semitism did not recede until the Nazi concentration camps were liberated in 1945 and the true dimensions of the Holocaust began to emerge.

Although Bingham left no record that he sensed any trouble, his time in Marseille was running out. In March 1941, Long effectively silenced McDonald's pleas for a more open immigration policy; in official Washington sentiment for aiding refugees evaporated.

In April, Bingham was delegated to accompany the new U.S. ambassador to Vichy, retired Adm. William D. Leahy, during Leahy's official visit to Marseille. Nothing gave any indication of tensions, and afterward Bingham sent a note to the ambassador saying, "It was a great privilege for me to have had the opportunity of being with you and Mrs. Leahy during your short visit here."

A few days later, a wire from Washington arrived in Marseille: "Hiram Bingham, Jr., Class VIII, $3600, Marseille has been assigned Vice Consul at Lisbon and directed proceed as soon as practicable....This transfer not made at his request nor for his convenience."

There is no explanation in official records for the transfer, though notes found among Bingham's papers suggest the reasons: "Why was I transferred to Lisbon," he wrote. "Attitude toward Jews—me in visa section...attitude toward Fry." In any case, on September 4, while Bingham was on home leave, he received another telegram from the State Department: "You are assigned Vice Consul at Buenos Aires and you should proceed upon the termination of your leave of absence."

Bingham was in Buenos Aires when the United States entered World War II. He spent the remainder of the war there in the rank of vice consul and was an ongoing irritant to the State Department with his complaints about Nazis who had slipped out of Europe. They were operating openly in nominally neutral Argentina, whose military government dominated by Col. Juan Domingo Perón hardly disguised its fascist sympathies. "Perón and his whole gang are completely unreliable, and, whatever happens, all countries in South America will be seedbeds of Nazism after the war," Bingham wrote in a confidential memo to his superiors.


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