History ponders the heroism of Bingham

To his family, the elderly Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV ’25, the son of the legendary discoverer of Machu Picchu, was a quiet, enigmatic man given to obscure reading and religious mysticism, conspiracy theories and secrets. When asked about his role as American vice-consul in charge of visas in Vichy France in 1940, a critical diplomatic posting during one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history, Bingham’s face would become ashen, family members recalled. He invariably dodged the subject, remaining silent until his death in 1988.

Eight years later, Bingham’s youngest son, Bill, was digging through a closet in his father’s house when he discovered a stack of tightly wrapped documents dating from the Vichy period. Among other materials pertinent to his father’s consular role, Bingham found letters from dozens of Holocaust survivors and refugees, all thanking Harry Bingham for saving their lives.

The discovery prompted Bill Bingham to further investigate his father’s involvement with underground organizations engaged in smuggling refugees out of France. Bill Bingham combed through historical documents and interviewed refugees whom his father helped while posted in Marseilles. His father, he concluded, had possibly helped as many as 2,500 Jews and other refugees escape from France and from their Nazi persecutors.

“In his position, he became one pivotal point in Marseilles for the rescue operation and for refugees fleeing horror all over Europe,” Bill Bingham said. “He gave legitimate visas but those wouldn’t do any good unless refugees got out of France, so he gave logistical and strategic support to others organizing the escape from France.”

While Bill Bingham researched his father with the idea of eventually writing a book, his older brother Robert Kim Bingham launched a campaign to have his father commemorated on a U.S. postal stamp and recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest award bestowed on non-Jews by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.

In 2000, the United Nations honored Harry Bingham as a righteous diplomat. The U.S. State Department in 2002 posthumously awarded him with a constructive dissent medal for defying his superiors during the course of his rescue work.

“I think the fact that we had a civil servant involved in rescuing is a very good and salutary thing for the American people to know about,” Robert Kim Bingham said. “I think he is a hero of the first order because he put humanity ahead of his career and risked his career for doing the right thing.”

But Harry Bingham — thanks largely to some of the opinions he himself expressed — is not universally accepted as a hero. As an old man, he expressed anti-Semitic attitudes. According to an article written in 2000 by his niece Lucretia Bingham, Harry Bingham told her “her immortal soul was in danger” for marrying a Jew. Family members said Bingham dabbled in anti-Zionist conspiracy theories and made statements suggestive of Holocaust denial. In 2003, the Holocaust Suvivors Network posted a Web page attempting to discredit claims of Bingham’s heroism.

The new-found interest in Bingham occurs at a sensitive period in Holocaust studies. Many survivors are dying out, memories are rapidly forgotten and the record of the past is increasingly confined to second-hand documents, memoirs and hearsay.

Even the time-honored literary sub-genre of Holocaust memoirs has recently been rocked by controversy. In 1995, Binjamin Wilkormiski published “Fragments,” purportedly the reconstructed record of his childhood in the Auschwitz death camp. Hailed upon publication as a masterpiece reminiscent of the work of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Anne Frank, “Fragments” was afterwards revealed to be fiction, its author a fraud who, though living peacefully in Switzerland during the war, deluded himself into believing he survived the death camp.

Bingham falls into an especially sensitive sphere. Whereas survivors’ memoirs have proliferated and many Nazi perpetrators and collaborators have met justice, diplomats and other neutrals, ensconced in the wings of history, retain an ambiguous position. History has been kind to legendary rescuers like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, but many minor figures who hid Jews in their houses or aided rescue operations are now completely forgotten, as was Bingham until recently.

An American in France

Paula Hyman, a professor of modern Jewish history at Yale and a specialist on the Holocaust in France, said the whole well-meaning process of lionizing individuals from the Holocaust runs the risk of historical revisionism.

“The Holocaust is probably one of the best documented events in history, but once you look for an individual, it becomes problematic,” Hyman said. “There’s a human need even in the most gruesome circumstances to believe that people are altruistic and willing to help humanity. But the story of the Holocaust is pretty much unrelieved suffering with so little hope.”

The story of outsiders’ intervention in the Holocaust is largely a tale of indifference to and collaboration with atrocities. American diplomats and politicians were frequently among the culprits before America’s entry into the war. Many of Harry Bingham’s State Department superiors and colleagues were sympathetic to Hitler and actively hindered the distribution of visas to Hitler’s opponents.

Bingham was different. Though often sharing the prejudices common to the Ivy League-educated elite of the era, Bingham possessed a worldly and humanitarian sensibility which allowed him, family members said, to transcend the provincial attitudes of his own social class.

From early childhood, Harry Bingham had his family’s strict religious and humanitarian code instilled in him. He was descended from an old New England family distantly related to the namesake of Yale’s Bingham Hall. His grandfather and great-grandfather were pioneering Protestant missionaries in Hawaii and the Gilbert Islands, his mother was a Tiffany heiress, and his father, purportedly the model for the Indiana Jones character, discovered Machu Picchu on a Yale expedition in 1911 and later served as the governor of Connecticut and as a U.S. senator. After graduating from Yale, Harry Bingham worked for the Foreign Service in Asia. Influenced by Buddhism, he integrated compassionate mystical doctrines into the zealous Christianity of his upbringing. He retained this view of religion as a compassionate force for the rest of his life, Bill Bingham said.

“He felt he had a higher duty to humanity than to governments,” Bill Bingham said. “He felt he had a spiritual obligation to help those who were oppressed and in danger. He got that in his upbringing, his travels, and his experience at Yale before that.”

In 1939, the Foreign Service sent Harry Bingham to Marseilles, where he stayed for two tumultuous years. Bingham’s posting in Marseilles coincided with Nazi Germany’s conquest of France. A humanitarian crisis resulted as refugees rushed towards the Spanish border, fleeing the German-occupied zone. But the refugees who made it to the south were stranded there. The Vichy regime, established in June 1940 as an autonomous government committed to a close alliance with Germany, refused to grant exit visas to applicants considered hostile to Hitler. Vichy officials agreed upon request to turn Nazi opponents over to the German government.

As vice consul, Bingham had legal jurisdiction to provide refugees with visas permitting entry into the United States but lacked the authority to help refugees leave France.

Anxious to limit immigration to the United States and to maintain good relations with the Vichy government, the State Department actively discouraged diplomats from helping refugees.

Stanley Hoffmann, a Harvard professor who lived in France through the Vichy regime and is currently teaching a class about the period, said most diplomats simply did as they were told.

“I don’t think the diplomats were especially sympathetic to the Nazis, they were just obeying orders and applying their orders strictly,” Hoffmann said. “I don’t know of too many cases in which diplomats took shortcuts to help refugees.”

But as desperate refugees crowded the American consulate in Marseilles, Bingham began to help, on occasion breaking French law and violating the policies of the State Department.

Breaking the law?

The extent of Bingham’s illegal activity during this period remains unclear.

In June, Bingham personally helped rescue the prominent anti-Nazi writer Lion Feuchtwanger from a French concentration camp. According to Feuchtwanger’s memoir, a lenient Vichy camp commandant allowed Feuchtwanger and other prisoners to take unescorted excursions outside camp grounds. Bingham intercepted Feuchtwanger returning to the camp from a swim, provided him with a disguise, drove him through a checkpoint and hid him in his diplomatic residence. According to Feuchtwanger’s diary, Bingham provided Feuchtwanger and his wife with visas under false names that proved invaluable when they eventually escaped from France.

Bingham, however, never physically participated in smuggling refugees across the border to Spain. Instead, he relied on other underground organizers to do the more involved work of transportation.

One of them was Varian Fry, an American volunteer who arrived in Marseilles in August 1940, determined to save persecuted refugees — especially prominent anti-Nazi intellectuals. Fry and his team provided false papers, orchestrated illegal escapes and rescued as many as 2,500 people, including the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst; the writers Andre Breton, Franz Weufel and Victor Serge; the chemist Otto Meyerhof and other prominent intellectuals.

In his memoir “Surrender on Demand,” Fry, who earned the nickname “America’s Schindler,” credits Bingham with supporting his rescue operations. Bingham allowed refugees to stay in his house and used his diplomatic immunity to facilitate contact between Fry and refugees interned in camps. After the war, Fry inscribed a book to Bingham, calling him “my partner in the ‘crime’ of saving lives.”

Possibly due to Harry Bingham’s insubordination, the State Department transferred him to Portugal in early 1941. In his notes, Bingham wondered if his State Department superiors were punishing him for his association with Fry. He was replaced in Marseilles by a short-sighted vice consul preoccupied with keeping left-wing political agitators out of the United States.

In a diary entry at the time, Fry wrote that Bingham’s transfer jeopardized the efficiency of the rescue operation. Nevertheless, Fry continued his work after Bingham’s departure until expelled by Vichy authorities in August 1941.

Debating heroism

Despite the help Bingham gave to Fry, he never became a full member of Fry’s covert team of rescuers, and never, some survivors say, put himself in real danger.

Citing in part the absence of personal risk, the Holocaust Survivors’ Network’s extensive Web page accused the Bingham family of fabricating information to exaggerate Harry Bingham’s importance in rescue operations and denied that Bingham could be credited with saving lives.

“There was nothing, but absolutely nothing, from his activities as a diplomat that Bingham IV could have done while in Marseilles, to place his life in jeopardy or danger,” Network editor K.K. Brattman wrote on the Web site. “The late Hiram Bingham IV was for sure no hero, not by a long shot.”

Quoting a passage from “Surrender on Demand” in which an associate of Fry said Bingham “does everything to help within U.S. law,” the Network portrayed Bingham as an ordinary civil servant bloated into a hero by his misguided family.

“Since when [does] a person with a ‘heart of gold’ doing his ‘ordinary job’ of issuing visas to Jews and non-Jews alike qualifies [sic] for a ‘hero’ status?” Brattman asked rhetorically on the Web site.

Bingham’s family responded indignantly to the Network’s assertions, charging that Brattman distorted historical facts for his own publicity-seeking purposes.

The editors of the Holocaust Survivors’ Network declined to comment despite numerous requests.

But some survivors have difficulty calling Bingham a hero, even without regard for the Holocaust Survivors Network’s accusations.

Justus Rosenberg, the project co-director for the Varian Fry Foundation, acted as a courier for Fry’s rescue operations team. He said he never met Harry Bingham personally but knew he was very sympathetic to refugees and willing to help Fry whenever possible. But, Rosenberg said, the extent of Bingham’s heroism is subject to interpretation.

“How to interpret fact becomes a question of terminology,” Rosenberg said. “Bingham was greatly helpful, but to what extent he exposed himself to danger is questionable. There are some facts behind him, but the rest is literature.”

In a period of time when help was scarce for those that needed it, heroism became a relative term.

Pierre Sauvage, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a child survivor of the Holocaust, said Bingham should be considered a hero largely in relation to the over-arching indifference of the West towards refugees and the “stunning extent of villainy” in the American Marseilles consulate.

“Part of the tragedy of the time is that just to remain kind-hearted about people’s plight could do a lot of good,” Sauvage said. “An American diplomat who just acted in a humane way towards refugees becomes a good guy because most American diplomats treated refugees abominably … Bingham was caring where people didn’t want him to care.”

Eric Saul, the curator of Visas for Life, a travelling exhibit recognizing World War II diplomats, said he unqualifiedly believes Bingham should be celebrated as a hero.

“If you saved just one person, you should be thanked as an honorable and righteous person,” Saul said. “If you save a person you are also saving their children and grandchildren. It is the question of how much a life is worth … If you save one life that makes you a hero in my book.”

Hyman, however, adheres to a stricter definition of heroism.

“The Poles who hid Jews in their homes were risking their lives and the lives of their families. It was irrational to do that, but they were sufficiently angry and sufficiently compassionate to do that,” Hyman said. “Those are the real heroes.”

Weighing actions and words

Harry Bingham damaged the case for his own heroism with the controversial statements he made towards the end of his life. The Holocaust Survivors’ Network used Bingham’s alleged anti-Semitism as a centerpiece for their case against recognizing his contributions to Fry’s operation.

Bill Bingham admitted that his father, despite his rational rejection of discriminatory ideologies, probably possessed unconscious anti-Semitic attitudes as a result of his upbringing and education. But, Bill Bingham said, his father, having personally witnessed the deaths of refugees during visits to French concentration camps, never denied the Holocaust and never, at the crucial moments in Marseille, allowed his prejudices to distract him from the higher obligations he felt he owed to humanity as a whole.

“I would not call him a Holocaust denier,” Bill Bingham said. “I think it is critical to say that his acts rescuing Jews and endangered refugees are much more significant than aspects of his religious or political viewpoints at the end of his life.”

But the details of Bingham’s actions remain difficult to evaluate. The number of people saved remains virtually impossible to assess. According to the Bingham family, a letter from Fritz Heine, a prominent rescuer in France, credited Harry Bingham with saving 1,000 lives. The official estimates of the United Nations and State Department place the number closer to 2,500. Nothing is known with certainty.

While details of the rescue operations remain unknown and unknowable, the alternative refugees faced is clear.

“The great ramification of the whole story is that all this was happening at the very time when the Final Solution was being decided upon,” Sauvage said. “When Fry arrived in France, it was not so much a matter of getting out; anyone could get out. It was a matter of where you were going afterwards. By the end of 1941 the doors were shut.”

Refugees had little chance of aided escape afterwards, Sauvage said.

“During that time the Germans got a sense that the outside world didn’t really care,” Sauvage said. “If there had been more Binghams and more Frys, would it have been different? Who knows?”

The role Hiram Bingham IV ’25 played in saving Jewish refugees during the Holocaust remained a secret until after his death in 1988.
Courtesy BillBingham
The role Hiram Bingham IV ’25 played in saving Jewish refugees during the Holocaust remained a secret until after his death in 1988.

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