New Stamp To Honor WWII Envoy
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Sixty-six years ago, Hiram Bingham IV, a blue-blood American diplomat in France, defied U.S. policy by helping Jews escape the Nazis in the early years of World War II.
Bingham's actions cost him his Foreign Service career but won him the undying gratitude of the more than 2,000 refugees he helped save by issuing them travel visas and false passports, and even at times sheltering them in his home. Only in recent years has his heroism been officially recognized by his own country.
Bingham, the Yale-educated son of a former U.S. senator, died in 1988 at age 84. His own children did not learn the extent of his wartime deeds until 1996, when a son found a cache of old journals and correspondence stashed in a hidden closet in the family's Connecticut home. Soon Bingham's face -- and, supporters hope, his story -- will be well known across the United States, as the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp next Wednesday in his honor.
"We're thrilled in our family," said Robert Bingham, 63, one of his 11 children, who had been petitioning for the stamp since 1998. "My father was a humble, religious man who would be embarrassed by all of the attention he is receiving. . . . He was always looking for the best in people. . . . I hope by bringing out his story, we as a society can further the cause of making this world a more humane and loving place."
More than a dozen family members, joined by several members of Congress and a few Jewish survivors whom Bingham helped, gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday for a ceremonial unveiling of the stamp. Thomas G. Day, a senior vice president at the Postal Service, noted that Bingham's is one of six new stamps honoring distinguished American diplomats.
"To be depicted on an American stamp is not something that is easily achieved," Day said.
Bingham, known to friends and family as "Harry," hailed from a prominent New England family. His father, Hiram Bingham III, was an archaeologist who rediscovered the ruins of the Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911 and later served briefly as Connecticut governor and as a Republican U.S. senator from that state. After graduating from Yale, Harry Bingham entered the Foreign Service and eventually became U.S. vice consul in Marseille, France, in 1936.
Within a few years Hitler's armies began marching over Europe, occupying France in 1940 and working with the Vichy French government. The United States had not yet entered the war, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's State Department told consular officials to keep the number of U.S.-bound immigrants and refugees as low as possible.
As thousands of Jews fled the Nazis to southern France, Americans concerned about the plight of the refugees organized the Emergency Rescue Committee. They convinced Roosevelt to authorize a few hundred "emergency visas" for artists and intellectuals, and they enlisted journalist and scholar Varian Fry to go to France to help Jews get to the United States.
But Bingham, in defiance of U.S. policy, went much further, helping thousands of Jews escape. He provided Fry with visa and other travel documents, some fraudulent, let rescue activists use his home for planning meetings and hid refugees there from the local authorities. At one point he helped novelist Lion Feuchtwanger elude the Nazis by dressing him in women's clothing and spiriting him through German checkpoints by telling authorities the person was his mother-in-law. Among the people Bingham helped save were artist Marc Chagall and philosopher Hannah Arendt.
In a 1980 audiotape made by his granddaughter Tiffany, who was working on a school project, Bingham made clear that his superiors would have disapproved had they known what he was doing.
"My boss, who was the consul general at the time, said, 'The Germans are going to win the war. Why should we do anything to offend them?' " Bingham said on the tape, which was found in the 1990s and played at yesterday's event. "I had to do as much as I could."
After German and French officials got wind of the rescue activity and complained to the U.S. government, the State Department revoked Fry's passport in early 1941 and transferred Bingham to Portugal and later to the embassy in Argentina. While there, Bingham called attention to reports that Nazi assets and war criminals were being given safe harbor in Argentina, but the State Department quashed his efforts to investigate. Bingham resigned in protest in 1946 and returned to Connecticut, ending his career four years shy of his pension.
It would be nearly six decades before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell honored Bingham posthumously with a special "constructive dissent" award in 2002.
"He's the only U.S. diplomat . . . that we know of who risked his career, indeed sacrificed his career, in order to save Jews from the Holocaust," Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, said yesterday. "We want young people to hear about this courageous voice, because Harry is a great example of how at a time of crisis it is possible to stand up and to do the right thing, despite the risks."