For most Yalies, the name Bingham means a dorm tucked away in the corner of Old Campus, home of the freshman lounge and a place to do laundry. Few realize that it is the name of a prestigious Connecticut family that includes among its members an unsung hero who secretly saved over 2,000 lives in World War II.
At a ceremony at the Peabody Museum on Thursday, the family name gained still more recognition when the state of Connecticut officially dedicated the 2001 edition of the State Register and Manual to Hiram Bingham IV ’25. Beneath towering dinosaur skeletons, Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz ’83 recounted the selfless acts of Bingham IV and his love of life and humanity.
Born in 1903, Hiram Bingham IV was the son of the famed archaeologist who discovered the ruins of the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru. After studying international law at Yale, the younger Bingham entered diplomatic service and in 1940 was named vice consul at Marseilles, France, where he oversaw the issuing of visas.
While there, Bingham risked his career and quite possibly his life and personally issued over 2,000 visas to Jews and political refugees, actions that went against U.S. policy at the time. Artist Marc Chagall, Nobel Laureate Otto Meyerhof and Ralph Hockley — who would later become a U.S. intelligence officer — were but a few of the many lives he saved.
“Bingham is a true hero who rose to a dangerous situation, thought for himself, and did what was right,” Yale President Richard Levin said in the ceremony’s keynote address. “Out of all those who could have, he was the only one who granted visas to Jews seeking refuge. While it is sad that there were not more, we are proud to have played a role in the life of the one who did.”
Word of Bingham’s actions soon reached the State Department in Washington, and he was unceremoniously relieved of his post little over a year later, Bysiewicz said. Throughout the rest of his life, Bingham never shared his experiences in Marseilles with the rest of the world and rarely spoke of them with his family. Though various family members were aware of some of the details, the complete story of Bingham’s selflessness did not surface until years later.
“Hiram Bingham was one of those great men who didn’t think twice about doing the things he did,” said Peter Bartucca, the editor of the State Register and Manual. “This certainly is a worthy dedication.”
Numerous members of the Bingham family were present at the ceremony, including Bill Bingham, Hiram’s youngest son. It was he who discovered his father’s long-lost notes, records and pictures one day hidden in a space behind the chimney of the family home.
“These were the most damning documents that would have connected him to the Jewish underground,” Bill Bingham said. “He had 11 children, and even after the war it was not a good time politically to reveal that he had essentially disobeyed the government. He [continued hiding the documents] mainly to protect the family.”
Each year, the State Register and Manual — or “Blue Book” — is dedicated to a noteworthy Connecticut citizen or an aspect of the state’s history. First published in New London in 1785, the state Blue Book serves as a directory of public officials, an index for oft-referenced state facts, and an almanac of state history.
“To get in touch with people who do outrageous things, this is the book I reach for most frequently,” New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said at the ceremony. “Aside from the Yale phone directory, of course.”
Past Connecticut Blue Books have been dedicated to such famous persons and things as the actress Katherine Hepburn, a Connecticut native, and the reconstructed Amistad ship.