Their Father Was an Unsung Hero of the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff and Dov Fischer, Esq.

Many Father’s Day commentaries and reminiscences describe fathers who were heroes not because they saved lives or changed history, but because they faithfully fulfilled the ordinary but vital tasks that made them heroes to their own families–working hard, paying the bills, driving carpools, and teaching the one thousand and one little things that a child needs to know to make his or her way through this world.

Still, even as we recognize the countless unsung “ordinary” heroes among us, this is a day for telling of one father who not only was an extraordinary hero, who saved lives and changed history, but whose children now wage a lonely struggle to win their father the vindication he so deserves.

This is the story of the Binghams of Salem, Connecticut, a family of wealth, power, and more than its share of fame. Hiram Bingham III was the archaeologist who in 1911 discovered the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, in Peru, and upon whom Steven Spielberg based his famous movie character, Indiana Jones. Bingham later served as governor of Connecticut and as United States Senator from the nutmeg state. His wife Alfreda was the granddaughter of Charles Tiffany, founder of the Tiffany jewelry dynasty.

Their son, Hiram (Harry) Bingham IV, chose to enter the diplomatic service, and in 1939 was posted as a U.S vice-consul in Marseilles, France. American consular officials abroad were under instructions from the State Department to “postpone and postpone and postpone” when they received requests for immigration visas from desperate refugees seeking to flee the ravages of Nazism. Anti-foreigner and anti-Jewish prejudice was rife among State Department officials during that era, and the Department worked to restrict issuing immigration visas, suppressing visa approvals far below even the small number allowed by America’s strict immigration quotas. Harry Bingham’s conscience could not accept this State Department policy.

In the summer of 1940, an American author and editor, Varian Fry, arrived in France on a one-man mission to rescue artists and intellectuals, most of them Jews, from the pro-Nazi Vichy government. Defying his superiors, Harry Bingham secretly cooperated with Fry. The pair managed to issue visas and travel documents that saved the lives of an estimated 2,500 refugees, among them the painter Marc Chagall, Nobel Laureate Otto Meyerhof, and the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Bingham arranged for the famous German Jewish novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, to be smuggled out of an internment camp disguised in women’s clothing, and he personally hid Feuchtwanger in his home until he could secret him out of the country. As other outposts of the State Department in France refused to issue sufficient visas, the French victims of Nazi terror made their way to Marseilles, seeking to reach Harry Bingham for one last chance to live.

Word of the Fry-Bingham rescue effort began to spread, and furious Nazi officials complained to the State Department. Anxious to avoid irritating American-German relations, the State Department revoked Fry’s passport and transferred Bingham, first to Lisbon and then out of the European theater to the U.S. embassy in Argentina. There Bingham further jeopardized his diplomatic career by challenging the State Department’s indifference to Argentinean harboring of Nazi war criminals.

But Bingham’s superiors had their revenge. He was barred from advancing to the rank of ambassador. Discouraged, Harry resigned from the foreign service.

Harry Bingham never told any of his eleven children the full story of his Holocaust rescue activities. Driven from his diplomatic career, he died with his secret and was almost penniless. He never told his story. Then, several years after Bingham’s death, his youngest son, William, discovered a bundle of letters and other documents in an old cupboard behind a fireplace in the family home. The papers revealed the incredible story of Harry Bingham’s rescue work.

Since then, Bingham’s children have been waging a tenacious battle to set the record straight regarding their father and to secure official U.S. government recognition of his deeds. An important first step took place last year, when the State Department posthumously conferred on Harry Bingham its “Constructive Dissent” award. But the Bingham children have not rested. Another son, attorney Robert Kim Bingham, has launched a campaign to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp commemorating his father’s deeds.

America’s postage stamps feature a wide array of images, from natural scenery to portraits of cartoon characters, entertainers, political leaders, and outstanding humanitarians. Hiram Bingham’s visage would fit proudly an on American postage stamp of any denomination.

This coming July 17 would have been Hiram Bingham’s 100th birthday, a most fitting occasion for the Postal Service to commemorate Bingham’s heroism with a stamp. With the launching of a year-long Hiram Bingham Centenary, with educational events and programs about Harry’s rescue work, it is time for America to recognize the heroic personal sacrifice and struggle that make Hiram Bingham IV an American Wallenberg. On this Father’s Day, Robert Kim Bingham’s loving tribute to his father and vigorous campaign for his dad’s vindication speaks particularly to the American spirit. Happy Father’s Day to you, Robert Kim Bingham, and to your brothers and sisters, and thank you for sharing with the American people your father’s story of courage in the face of adversity.

June 2003