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Remembering a man who saved thousands
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Remembering a man who saved thousands

Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV — seen here overlooking the Marseilles harbor, circa 1940 — put his career on the line by defying his superiors and issuing visas to thousands of Jews and other refugees.
Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV — seen here overlooking the Marseilles harbor, circa 1940 — put his career on the line by defying his superiors and issuing visas to thousands of Jews and other refugees.

If, as stated in the Talmud, anyone who saves a life saves the whole world, then Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV was responsible for saving more than 2,500 worlds.

In 1940-41, before the United States entered World War II, Bingham, who died in 1988, was American vice consul in Marseilles, France. During that time, in defiance of orders from his superiors, he issued visas, enabling Jews and other refugees to flee Europe — even in the absence of passports or other documents.

Among those he helped save were the artist Marc Chagall, author Lion Feuchtwanger, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof, and many others who would otherwise have been sent to concentration camps and an almost certain death.

On Sunday, Oct. 9, at Monroe Township Senior Center, Bingham’s son Robert Kim Bingham will tell his father’s story of courage at an annual event sponsored by Hadassah Associates and the Alisa and Monroe Township chapters of Hadassah.

“My father’s great-grandfather and grandfather, Hirams I and II, were Christian missionaries in the Kingdom of Hawaii, beginning in 1820,” Kim Bingham told NJJN via e-mail. “Hiram III, my grandfather, was the explorer who uncovered the ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru, and he later entered politics, winning elections as governor and senator in Connecticut.”

These were hard acts for Hiram IV to follow, Bingham said, but when history placed him in critical circumstances, he was up to the challenge. “My father always believed, and taught his children — all 11 of us — that there is a spark of divinity in every human being. He lived by the motto: ‘Give the best that you have to be the best that you know.’ Instead of saving souls like his forebears, the best that he knew was to save lives during the nightmare of the Holocaust.”

Kim Bingham said his father not only wrote visas and planned escapes, but hid fugitives and provided cartons of American cigarettes to be used as bribes for border guards. He also worked closely with Varian Fry, the American journalist who, with Eleanor Roosevelt’s blessing, was sent to Marseilles by the New York Emergency Rescue Committee to bring out targeted individuals. Together, Harry Bingham and Fry searched for people on an emergency list.

Years later, Fry gave Bingham a copy of his book Surrender on Demand with the handwritten inscription: “To my partner in the ‘crime’ of saving human lives.”

All of this would have been hard enough if Harry had received support from his colleagues on the ground and the higher-ups in Washington. Far from that, he heard only disapproval and threats to his career.

On Sept. 18, 1940, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent the following telegram to the American Embassy in France: “[While the] Department is sympathetic to the plight of unfortunate refugees…this government cannot, repeat not, countenance the activities of …Mr. Fry and other persons, however well-meaning their motives may be, in carrying on activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations….”

Eventually, Harry was demoted, removed from his supervisory position in the visa section, and abruptly transferred to Lisbon. He had a brief tenure there before being transferred to Buenos Aires, where Kim Bingham was born.

Now 74 and a frequent teller of his father’s tale, Kim confesses he knew almost nothing about Harry’s exploits until he was 50. “I learned that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum had scheduled a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to honor World War II rescuers. My father was already deceased, and my sister Abigail and I went in his stead.”

Since that day, in 1993, Kim Bingham has worked hard to spread knowledge about his father’s character and accomplishments, including writing a book, Courageous Dissent: How Harry Bingham Defied His Government To Save Lives (Tribune Books, 2007).

“Harry had a strong moral fiber, something that was evident from the time he was 10 and stood up to a bully who was persecuting a fellow classmate,” he said.

Bella Meyer, granddaughter of Marc Chagall, and a Manhattan-based floral artist of some renown, will appear with Bingham at the Oct. 9 event. In a phone interview, Meyer praised the courage of men like Hiram Bingham IV and Varian Fry, “who made it possible for my two siblings and me to live.”

She also lauded her own mother, Ida, who was in her mid-20s when the Nazis occupied France. “My mother was the one who organized every Chagall picture that was in the family’s possession, supervised the packing, and arranged for the art to accompany my grandparents on their escape through Spain to Portugal and, eventually, to the United States.”

When the shipment was delayed in Madrid, Ida traveled there and, Meyer isn’t sure how, got it back on the move. She then had to return to France, but was able to escape at a later date.

“I hope to impress the Hadassah audience with the understanding that the deeds of just a few brave men and women were able to account for thousands of lives and even some art masterpieces to be rescued,” said Meyer.

Brief remarks also will be made by the following local dignitaries: State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14), Monroe Township Mayor Gerald Tamburro, and Hadassah Southern NJ region president Michelle Krasner.

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