US. Diplomat Goes Beyond Duty in Saving WWII Refugees

By Robert Kim Bingham

Hiram "Harry Bingham IV was stationed in Marseilles, France as a U.S. vice consul in charge of visas during the Vichy regime in early WWII, when thousands of refugees poured into Southern France to escape Hitler=s stretching claws.

In a taped interview around 1980, eight years before he died in Salem, Connecticut, Harry confirmed to his thirteen-year-old granddaughter that he had issued as many life-saving visas as he could to as many refugees as possible.

What he did not tell her is that he defied State Department policy -- not only in issuing visas apparently overly liberally, but in other clandestine ways as well.

On September 16, 1940, the Secretary of State issued a cable to the American consulate in Vichy France denouncing Americans who were evading the laws of countries with which we maintained friendly relations. The Secretary was Harry=s top boss. The message seems to be clearly directed at Harry and his accomplices, and to any other U.S. diplomats that might be out of line.

The cable read:

This Government can not repeat not countenance the activities as reported of Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry and other persons, however well meaning.

Harry was working underground with Fry and Bohn at the time. In fact, working closely with Fry, Harry had been hiding refugees in his diplomatic residence, including Lion Feuchtwanger, a formidable anti-Nazi author and visible target of Hitler, and conducting secret planning sessions in his home for ways to help refugees escape the Holocaust.

He had helped Mr. Feuchtwanger escape from the Gurs concentration camp (allegedly by dressing the author in women's clothes, as his "mother-in-law," to get by the guards). He had helped Mr. and Mrs. Lion Feuchtwanger escape into Spain and America, after hiding them some weeks in his home.

These refugees later wrote about Harry=s efforts to save them.

Mrs. Feuchtwanger recalled:

He [Harry] had told us that one could achieve a lot [at the Spanish border] with Camel cigarettes and he had filled my backpack and the pockets of my suit with many packs. So I went into the Customs House and told them I had heard that there was a high duty on cigarettes and...I threw a whole bunch of packs on the table. They all grabbed the packs, and one of them quickly stamped a paper I gave him without looking at the name. I have never gone down a mountain so fast.

While Mr. Feuchtwanger was hiding in Harry=s residence, he wrote in his diary:

Marseille, Monday 22 July [1940]: Bingham is an awkward, friendly, puritanical, dutiful, somewhat sad New Englander, who is very attached to his wife. He very much misses her and his children who have been removed to America.... The prospect of escape lifts my mood, but the impending hardships and dangers make me nervous. Worry about whether I can take Marta with me. But Bingham takes it as obvious....

Saturday, 17 August: I try to suggest to Bingham that he should give me a visa with the name Wetcheek. He goes along with it and is happy that he thought of it himself. We have a lively conversation.

After his escape, when he was on board the S.S. EXCALIBUR sailing to America, Mr. Feuchtwanger wrote a thank-you letter to Harry:



"My dear Harry Bingham,

Well, here I am, I can not believe it yet. Now, I should...write a nice letter full of thanks, but I will not...you know exactly what I am feeling.... Let me only repeat that it was a great chance that it was not Mr. X or Mr. Y, in whose house I had to face these bad days, but yours. I ever shall remember with pleasure those...good talks we had.

When you will get this letter, you certainly will be informed, how all happened. It was a great stress.... I feel a little exhausted. I miss my things. I have only this famous rucksack, but I feel happy.... I hope to see you soon in America, and meantimes, I should be glad to hear from you.

Yours forever --Wetcheek"

When Harry told Varian Fry, a Connecticut journalist who collaborated with Harry in Marseilles and received the Righteous Among the Nations medal from the Yad Vashem, that Harry was being transferred out of Marseilles [to Lisbon and Buenos Aires], Fry sadly noted this in his diary:

Wednesday, May 7 [1941]. Harry Bingham told me this morning that he has just received instructions to go to Lisbon. He is closing his house and packing his things. His going will be a great loss to the refugees, and may seriously cripple our work. He has been the one man at the Consulate who had always seemed to understand that his job now is not to apply the rules rigidly but to save lives whenever he could.... Without his help, much of what we have done we could [not] have done...he has worked very hard, minimizing formalities and always showing a sympathetic attitude towards candidates for immigration.... I hate to think what it is going to be like here after he has gone.

Harry was not a person to boast of his activities during the nightmare of the Holocaust. One time, he became ashen-faced with deep frowns when he painfully recalled long lines of refugees outside his Marseilles consulate window anxiously seeking visas. He said they were being "treated like cattle" --and he quickly changed the subject. His eleven children did not know the extent of his rescue efforts until recent years, when old documents of that era were found in his Salem farmhouse and at various museums.

One tape was also recently found in which Harry told his own story to his 13-year-old granddaughter, who was interviewing him for a Salem School class project:

HIRAM: We were transferred in 1937 to Marseille in France where there were a great many refugees from Nazi Germany trying to get visas to get to the United States and part of my work was giving visas to these refugees....They [the Germans] had a lot of what was called the Fifth Column, which were sort of spies and people living in southern France. And we got rumors that the Germans were going to come down to southern France and would be there any time... Although we were not in the war, most of our government was on the side of the allies, the British and the French. But my [superior] 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.

So...I had to do as much as I could....The Germans had signed an agreement with the French that they could stay in that zone, but they must surrender any Germans that were there -- any refugees -- on demand, and they would then be sent back to concentration camps in Germany.

GRANDDAUGHTER: What was the most important thing that you did for the Jews?

HIRAM: Well, in a way, it was getting as many visas as I could to as many peopleY.And we did help...."

In late 1941, Harry was reassigned to Lisbon and Buenos Aires, and resigned from the Foreign Service in 1945. He brought his family to his ancestral home in Salem, Connecticut, where he and his wife Rose raised their eleven children until he died in 1988.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert Kim Bingham, a resident of Salem, Connecticut is an attorney with the federal government who has coordinated an HBIV postage stamp campaign on weekends and late evenings since 1998 to honor his late father, Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV, for his rescue efforts: http://pages.cthome.net/WWIIHERO/ ; email rbingham03@snet.net