A Dad Who Rescued Jews from the Nazis

by Rafael Medoff

Father’s Day always finds Bill Bingham in a contemplative mood. “Growing up, I always thought I knew my dad pretty well,” says the civil rights attorney from rural Salem, Connecticut. But after Hiram (Harry) Bingham IV passed away in 1987, Bill made a discovery about his father that would change his life forever.

In 1939, Harry was posted as a U.S vice consul in Marseilles, southern France. The following year, the Germans conquered France and set up the puppet Vichy regime to govern the south.

“Sometimes, around the dinner table, there were hints that something about Dad’s years in Marseilles was unusual,” Bill recalls. “But when the subject came up, Mom would cut the conversation short. She seemed to be trying to shield us kids from something.”

One clue was his father’s unusual circle of friends. There were personally inscribed books from world-famous European authors on his shelf. There were the little chocolate coins that Martha Feuchtwanger, widow of the renowned novelist, would send the Bingham children every Christmas. There were fragments of conversations in which names such as “Chagall,” “Mann,” and “Arendt” surfaced. “My mother would always say, ‘Your father never broke any laws.’ That made us even more curious.”

Harry Bingham passed away in 1987. His wife, Rose, died in 1996. Bill, the youngest of eleven children, moved back to the family’s Colonial era home in Salem.

“One day I was looking in a closet that had been built behind the chimney to warm linens,” Bill recalls. “It was a deep and narrow space, completely dark, with dust so thick I couldn’t stay there for more than a short amount of time without getting sick.” It was there that he made his amazing discovery.

“There were stacks of file folders and large envelopes stuffed with miscellaneous old papers. And then–there was this one manila envelope hidden in the wall, in the very last place one would look. It was tightly bound in hay bale cord, marked ‘HB Private Notes, Marseilles’.” He took it to the dining room table and began sifting through its contents.

“I knew I had stumbled upon something extraordinary,” Bill says. “One of the first things I saw was a handwritten note from Marc Chagall, introducing my father to the leader of a French Jewish resistance organization. There were photos of refugees, photos of concentration camps in Vichy France, and a map showing the location of the camps. Then I found a typewritten journal. By that time my hands were trembling.”

The journal revealed the real Harry Bingham. It turned out he had worked secretly with Varian Fry, an American journalist who went to France in the summer of 1940 to rescue artists and intellectuals, most of them Jews, from the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators.

At that time, U.S. 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 Nazis. The Roosevelt administration was determined to reduce immigration to the bare minimum.
Bingham’s conscience compelled him to defy his superiors.

Bingham gave Fry clandestine logistical support, and gave the refugees the visas and travel documents he needed to smuggle an estimated 2,000 refugees out of France, and across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. Those rescued included the painter Marc Chagall, Nobel Laureate Otto Meyerhof and the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Bingham arranged for the 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 get him out of the country.

“One journal entry described a meeting in my father’s house, on the outskirts of Marseilles, in late 1940, with Fry, Chagall, and others, discussing how to get Chagall out of the country,” Bill says. “I suddenly realized that the table at which I was sitting was the same table where they must have sat at that meeting in 1940–my parents had brought it back from France when my father was transferred.”

Bingham was transferred out of France because, in 1941, the Germans complained to the United States about Fry’s activities. The U.S. had not yet entered World War II, and the Roosevelt administration was still trying to maintain cordial relations. The State Department canceled Fry’s passports and reassigned Bingham. The rescue operation ground to a halt. Not only that, but Bingham was barred from advancing to the rank of ambassador. Discouraged, he resigned from the foreign service.

“I believe the greatest way to honor your parents, especially after they are no longer with us, is to dedicate our lives to the values they taught us,” Bill reflects. He has committed himself to perpetuating his father’s ideals by pursuing a career in civil rights law. And by publicizing his father’s experiences and the lessons to be learned from it.

Bill’s biography of his father, coauthored with Veronica Sommer, is scheduled to be published in Europe next year by Aufbau. Hopefully an English-language edition (and perhaps a film) will follow. That will be a profound Father’s Day memento for Harry Bingham’s children and grandchildren to cherish.

June 2011