Charleston Gazette: Hiram Bingham IV, the secret rescuer
January 6, 2011 http://wvgazette.com/Opinion/Editorials/201101061095
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Did you know that an idealistic U.S. diplomat disobeyed his Washington superiors early in World War II and saved 2,500 Jews in southern France, before Nazis could ship them to death camps?
Hiram Bingham IV came from an elite family. His grandfather was a missionary to Hawaii, whose writings presaged James Michener's novel about the islands. His father was an archeologist who discovered the sky-high Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and reportedly became the model for fictional Indiana Jones. The father also married a Tiffany heiress and became a U.S. senator and governor of Connecticut.
The son attended both Yale and Harvard. He joined the foreign service and held various overseas posts before being assigned to Marseille in 1939. After Nazis overran Western Europe and began impounding Jews, the U.S. State Department took a hands-off posture, refusing to help Jews flee to safety.
But Bingham was horrified by the plight of refugees, including German intellectuals who had opposed Adolf Hitler. He hid some in his own home, and privately paid their escape expenses. Directly disobeying Washington, the junior diplomat issued 2,500 exit visas in a 10-month blitz. He saved famous figures such as artist Marc Chagall, Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher Otto Meyerhof, scholar Hannah Arendt, painter-sculptor Max Ernst and others.
Bingham also protested against squalid camps where France's turncoat Vichy government held refugees.
Washington swiftly silenced Bingham, transferring him to Argentina. From there, he reported the arrival of Nazi criminals as the war neared an end. Ostracized by the State Department, the diplomat resigned in 1945 and spent the rest of his life in obscurity at a Connecticut farm. He died nearly penniless in 1988.
His family never knew why his diplomatic career failed. But after his death, his sons found hidden packets of letters and documents about his Marseille actions. They made them public.
In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave Bingham a posthumous "Constructive Dissent" award. In 2006, Congress approved a commemorative postage stamp calling him a "Distinguished American Diplomat." The Episcopal Church included him in a list of "American Saints." Other belated honors were given.
Amid all the world's evil, it's heartening to recall that some brave people take humane and noble stands, even if it damages their careers.
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