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July 11, 1999, Sunday
Connecticut Weekly Desk
[from the Saturday Connecticut Edition of the New York Times]
[images and links added to optimize browsing capability]

A Diplomat's Quiet Battle To Rescue Jews Emerges

Photo: From "Harry's Wall" at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

HIRAM BINGHAM 4TH of Salem was known to most as the son of the former United States senator who also discovered the ruins of the ancient Incan city Machu Picchu in Peru.

He died in 1988, but details have emerged of Mr. Bingham's hidden life as a hero of the Holocaust. As a diplomat in Vichy France in 1940 and 1941, Mr. Bingham issued hundreds of visas and, occasionally, forged documents to help Jews and other targets of Nazi persecution escape. He helped as many as 2,500 artists, writers and others flee the Holocaust, historians said.

Bolstering the record is a cache of documents, letters and photographs that Hiram's son William found several years ago in the family's pre-Revolutionary Salem home. In a linen closet behind a fireplace, among cobwebs and dust, William found evidence of his father's past.

''There was a bunch of documents wrapped tightly together,'' William Bingham said. ''They included my dad's journal, and notes from people he rescued. Everything fell into focus at one moment. It was almost heart-stopping.''

The papers corroborate what historians had begun to piece together about the secret heroism of Hiram Bingham, about which Mr. Bingham himself said little during his lifetime.

The documents inspired William to consult with and help prepare exhibitions for the
Simon Weisenthal Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which led to his father's nomination by holocaust historians and survivors for one of Israel's highest honors: a medal awarded for being ''Righteous Among the Nations'' and inclusion in the park at Yad Vashem, literally, ''the place of names,'' Israel's National Holocaust Museum which is dedicated to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Israel's requirements for considering anyone for such an honor are arduous and demanding, said Eric Saul, guest curator for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the
Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. But to Mr. Saul, Mr. Bingham is clearly qualified for the honor.

Mr. Saul is an expert on rescue efforts during the Holocaust. He created an exhibition on so-called ''righteous diplomats,'' including Mr. Bingham, who helped save Jews during World War II. The exhibit includes the stories of 30 diplomats and has been shown in a dozen cities all over the world.

After the exhibition traveled to Israel last year and Israel recognized Mr. Bingham's efforts, another one of his sons, Robert Kim Bingham, nominated his father for a particularly American honor: he asked the United States Postal Service to issue a stamp in Hiram Bingham's memory. That application is pending, bolstered by support by public officials and Robert's neighbors, at least one of whom has collected hundreds of names on a petition supporting the stamp.

Mr. Bingham was vice counsel in Marseille, France, when the Germans captured Paris. Soon after, an American volunteer named
Varian Fry traveled from New York to France at the behest of what became known as the Emergency Rescue Committee, made up of Americans who wanted to help people escape the Nazis. Mr. Fry was placed in contact with Mr. Bingham by labor leaders and activists, including early members of the French resistance, with whom Mr. Bingham was organizing an underground network to help people flee Nazi-occupied Europe.

Bingham family lore has it that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt secretly supplied the first list of people the committee helped, according to William Bingham. The efforts of the committee were recorded in Mr. Fry's book, ''Surrender on Demand,'' which he wrote soon after the war. Because Mr. Bingham worked for the State Department when the book was published, Mr. Fry played down his friend's role for fear that the United States Government would fire or prosecute him for violating State Department orders not to break the laws of his host country, William Bingham said. Mr. Fry conveyed the true impact of Mr. Bingham's activities in the inscription he wrote in the copy of the book he gave to him, ''To a partner in the 'crime' of saving human lives.''

Yet Mr. Bingham's help was crucial because he was the only diplomat of the group and could gain access to documents and use other advantages of his diplomatic status to help Jews escape. Mr. Bingham even hid some people in his home after he sent his family -- he then had four children -- back to the United States after the Nazi occupation began. 

Mr. Bingham helped pluck one writer,
Lion Feuchtwanger, from outside a prison camp and drove Mr. Feuchtwanger to his home, insisting he dress as a woman to disguise himself for two months until he could escape. That rescue, and others by Mr. Bingham, were part of an exhibition called ''Assignment Rescue: Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee.'' It was shown for two years at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington from 1993 to 1995, said Shana Penn, director of media relations for the museum.

''Bingham is remarkable because he was willing to respond to orders from the State Department -- orders that went against his grain -- appropriately,'' said Susan Morgenstein, consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ms. Morgenstein is a consultant who was hired by the Holocaust Museum to be curator for the Fry exhibition. ''In the south of France, Mr. Bingham responded in his own humane and righteous way for the good of our nation perhaps at a time when his superiors were giving orders that went against that good land we should be,'' she said. ''He can be credited for going with his instincts for good, and against what he knew was ill-intentioned.''

Because Mr. Bingham worked in the visa section, he was able to issue visas to thousands of people. Among those Mr. Bingham helped escape were the artists
Marc Chagall and German surrealist painter Max Ernst, painter and writer Andre Masson, writers Victor Serge and Franz Werfel and Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Otto Meyerhof. A letter from the author Thomas Mann survives, dated Oct. 27, 1940. It says, ''My brother Heinrich Mann and son, Golo, since their arrival in the United States have repeatedly spoken to me about your exceptional kindness and . . . help to them in their recent need and danger.''

Yet Mr. Bingham's career was also in jeopardy. A Sept. 14, 1940 order from the State Department instructed consuls against helping the emergency rescue committee: ''However well-meaning their motives may be, they are carrying on acts evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintained friendly relations.''

And Mr. Bingham also experienced frustration that he couldn't help more people, William Bingham said. ''My father felt terrible that he couldn't help many of the poorer people,'' he said. ''Many of the people he helped had to have an American sponsor, someone to vouch for their financial well-being, relatives in the states or have some kind of a job.''

In the spring of 1941, Mr. Bingham's superiors discovered his activities and transferred him out of the visa section. Perhaps because his father had been a senator, or perhaps because he hid his activities so well, he was not prosecuted for violating the law, but the State Department later retaliated by transferring him to the United States embassy in Buenos Aires and giving him nonpolitical work. There he continued to monitor the activities of the Nazis and protested when it became clear that war criminals from Germany were escaping to Argentina. When his protests were ignored, he resigned, just a few years before he would have qualified for a pension.

''According to everything I read, he completely violated American policy,'' Mr. Saul said. ''American policy was to help nobody, especially Jews, because Jews were communist sympathizers and labor organizers. For Bingham, all of a sudden, to openly support Jews was to give up a diplomatic career, and he must have known that.''

J. D. Bindenagel, special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department, said he was not aware of Mr. Bingham's efforts, but also noted that he didn't believe the department has ever recognized any American diplomat who helped people escape the Nazis during the war.

According to Mr. Saul, at least two other American diplomats helped the Jews in Europe. He has documented the activities of 50 diplomats who helped Jews escape, including the two Americans, three papal nuncios (one of whom, Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later became Pope John XXIII) a Chinese diplomat and a Turkish Moslem. Most of the diplomats, including Mr. Bingham, were little known before Mr. Saul started his research several years ago, and even the diplomats' families were often in the dark.

Mr. Saul explained that, of the one million Jews who survived the Holocaust, diplomats helped save about 250,000.

When he speaks with surviving family members such as the Binghams, Mr. Saul said:

''We go on this journey together. Their fathers, for the most part, have passed on. And they discover these heroic, compassionate, loving fathers who they really never knew. You can see the Holocaust as a black hole of unredeemed evil, but you look at the stories of the rescuers and you can go on. There is hope in the world.''


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