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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When, after the war, Bingham's request to be posted to Nazi-hunting operations in Washington, D.C. was turned down, he resigned from the Foreign Service and returned to the family farm in Connecticut. "For the children it was wonderful. Daddy was always there," says his daughter Abigail Bingham Endicott, 63, a singer and voice teacher in Washington, D.C. "He spent part of the day playing with the kids and much time in his study, dreaming up new business ideas." He designed a device called the Sportatron, an enclosed court 12 feet by 24 feet with various attachments and adjustments that would allow the user to play handball, tennis, basketball, even baseball in confined spaces. "Unfortunately, he didn't master the skill of selling and promoting something on a big scale," says Abigail. After a while, she says, he lost his patent on the device.

Bingham went through his inheritance. Wanting to live off the land as well as to save money, he bought a cow and chickens. Rose became a substitute teacher. "I was pretty much dressed in hand-me-downs," says William Bingham. His father "tried to fix things around the house, but wasn't good at it."

Amid Harry's financial hardship, his father, who lived in Washington, set up a trust fund to educate Harry's children. Abigail recalls a rare visit from the famous old explorer. "He was wearing a white linen suit and made us line up in order of age," she says. "There were maybe eight or nine of us, and he handed each of us a freshly minted silver dollar."

In his later years, says Abigail, Harry Bingham "told my older sister that he was very sorry he couldn't have left money for the family, but that he was very poor." ("Oh, Daddy, you've given us each other," she replied.) After his widow, Rose, died, the house passed into a trust that allows the Bingham children and others to use it, which is how William came to discover the documents his father had left behind.

William's discovery helped satisfy a curiosity that had been intensifying ever since the Bingham family was invited, in 1993, to a tribute to Varian Fry and other rescuers, sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1996, William brought the documents he had found to the museum, where a curator expressed interest in including information about Harry in future exhibits. In 1998, the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem honored Bingham and ten other diplomats for having saved some 200,000 lives during the war.

Robert Kim Bingham, 66, Harry's sixth child, who went to Jerusalem for the Yad Vashem ceremonies, marshaled a campaign for recognition of his father in his own country; in June 2002, Bingham's "constructive dissent" was recognized when he was designated a Courageous Diplomat by the American Foreign Service Association, the society of Foreign Service professionals, at the State Department. Bingham, said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, had "risked his life and his career, put it on the line, to help over 2,500 Jews and others who were on Nazi death lists to leave France for America in 1940 and 1941. Harry was prepared to take that risk to his career to do that which he knew was right."

Afterward, the department revised Bingham's biographical entry in its official history, highlighting his humanitarian service. In 2006, the Postal Service released a stamp bearing Bingham's likeness.

As Harry Bingham's story spread, a few dozen of the people he had helped and their survivors came forward, writing to his children, filling in the portrait of their father. "He saved my Mother, my sister and I," Elly Sherman, whose family eventually settled in Los Angeles, wrote to Robert Kim Bingham. She included a copy of a visa bearing Harry's signature and dated May 3, 1941—ten days before he left Marseille. "Without him we would not have been able to avoid the concentration camp to which we were assigned two days later."

Abigail Bingham Endicott says she wishes her father knew how proud his children are of him. "We had no idea about the extent of what he had done," she says. She recalls a hymn the family often sang at gatherings and in it she hears a suggestion of her father's predicament in Marseille:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
'twixt that darkness and that light.


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