May 25, 2006
Washington, D.C. – A senior U.S. diplomat in Vichy France in 1940 ordered his staff to refrain from giving visas to Jewish refugees or helping British POWs, according to a newly-discovered interview with one of his deputies.
The tape-recorded interview with the deputy, U.S. vice-consul Hiram Bingham IV, was played in public for the first time at a May 24 event on Capitol Hill Capitol Hill honoring Bingham for his work with journalist Varian Fry to rescue Jewish refugees from the Nazis.
The interview was conducted with Bingham by his granddaughter, Tiffany Mitchell Bingham, in 1980. (Bingham passed away in 1988.) In it, he recalls the orders he was given by the U.S. Consul General in Marseilles, Hugh Fullerton, in 1940:
“My boss, who was the Consul General at that time, said, ‘The Germans are going to win the war. Why should we do anything to offend them?’ And he didn’t want to give any visas to these Jewish people … I was getting as many visas as I could to as many people … I had to do as much as I could.”
When a number of British pilots who escaped from the Germans were detained by the Vichy French, Fullerton sent Bingham to the [French] internment camp to lobby against their release. “We were not supposed to help them at all. The Consul General told me to tell the French manager, the general in charge of the camp, that we were not interested, that we were glad they were holding them so they couldn’t get back to England.” But when Bingham arrived, the general assumed he had come to ask for the British pilots’ freedom, so he immediately offered to let them “escape,” before Bingham said anything. Bingham and rescue activist Varian Fry proceeded to smuggle them out of France in the months to follow.
The Capitol Hill event honoring Bingham was sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and Wally Findlay Galleries International, in cooperation with U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos. Dr. Kay King, of the House International Relations Committee, was coordinator of the event.
James Borynack, chairman and CEO of Wally Findlay Galleries, served as Master of Ceremonies at the standing-room-only event. In his remarks, Borynack pointed out that while Bingham helped rescue “many of the most important and influential artists of the Twentieth Century,” he also helped many other Jewish refugees, and was willing to “bend and break the rules because he was obeying a higher law–the law of morality, of humanity, of decency.”
Bingham’s son Robert, who led the campaign to persuade the Postal Service to issue the stamp, spoke movingly about his father, as did his siblings, Abigail and Bill. Numerous other members of the Bingham family also took part.
In his remarks at the event, Congressman Lantos, who is the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, called Bingham “a person of true moral authority, who turned his diplomatic post into a place of magic,” from which he changed history and saved lives. Also speaking at the ceremony was U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Bingham’s home state, who said it was “important to remember that Harry Bingham had the courage to defy the State Department’s policy toward Jewish refugees.”
Another speaker, Congressman Rob Simmons of Connecticut, pointed out that what Bingham did “cost him his career,” because the State Department transferred him out of France to stop his rescue work, and subsequently denied him all promotions.
Former New York State Senator Franz Leichter, who as a child escaped from Europe with his family thanks to Bingham, said “it shouldn’t have taken sixty years for the U.S. government to make amends for what it did to Bingham.” Prof. Marianne Pennekamp of UC-Berkeley described how she and her family were rescued by Bingham.
Dr. Bella Meyer, art historian and granddaughter of Marc Chagall, recalled how Fry and Bingham had to spend many hours convincing the reluctant artist to leave France. “Bingham had a vision–to fight for humanity, without compromise, even if it cost him his career,” she said. “Chagall, too, had a vision–to teach us how to listen with our hearts and appreciate the beauty of life. Harry Bingham’s vision made it possible for Chagall”s vision to come to life.”
Also speaking at the ceremony was Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who read passages about Bingham from Varian Fry’s book, Surrender on Demand. She praised the Wyman Institute and Wally Findlay Galleries for sponsoring the event, hailed Bingham as “a real hero,” and said the U.S. Holocaust Museum supports the petition to Yad VaShem (Israel’s Holocaust memorial center) to name Bingham one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Panels about Bingham from Eric Saul’s acclaimed “Visas for Life” exhibit were on display.