Home » Blog » U.S. Diplomat Hiram Bingham, Credited With Saving Thousands Of Jews From Nazis, To Be Immortalized On U.S. Postage Stamp

U.S. Diplomat Hiram Bingham, Credited With Saving Thousands Of Jews From Nazis, To Be Immortalized On U.S. Postage Stamp

We celebrate the news (thank you Congregation Or Ami faculty member Patti Jo Wolfson for bringing this to my attention) that Hiram Bingham IV, the U.S. diplomat credited with saving more than 2,000 Jews and other refugees in France from the invading Nazis, has been immortalized as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s set of “Distinguished American Diplomats” commemorative postage stamps.

As the Philadelphia Jewish News reports:

In 1940 and 1941, as vice consul in Marseilles, France, Bingham issued visas and false passports to Jews and other refugees against official U.S. policies, assisting in their escape and sometimes sheltering them in his own home. Artist Marc Chagall, philosopher Hannah Arendt and novelist Lion Feuchtwanger were among the refugees he rescued. 

Bingham came from an illustrious family. His father (on whom the fictional character Indiana Jones was based) was the archeologist who unearthed the Inca City of Machu Picchu, Peru, in 1911. After Hiram Bingham entered the Foreign Service in 1929, his postings included China, Poland, and England. Following the fall of France in 1940, the armistice required the French to “surrender on demand all Germans named by the German government in France.” Civil and military police began arresting German and Jewish refugees the Nazis marked for death. Several influential Europeans tried to convince the U.S. government to issue visas to allow the refugees to leave France and escape Nazi persecution.

The USA was then neutral and, not wishing to annoy Marshal Petain’s puppet Vichy regime, President Roosevelt’s government ordered its representatives in Marseilles not to grant visas to any Jews. Bingham found this policy immoral and, risking his career, did all in his power to undermine it. 

In defiance of his bosses in Washington, he granted over 2,500 USA visas to Jewish and other refugees, including the artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst and the family of the writer Thomas Mann. He also sheltered Jews in his Marseilles home, and obtained forged identity papers to help Jews in their dangerous journeys across Europe. He worked with the French underground to smuggle Jews out of France into Franco’s Spain or across the Mediterranean and even contributed to their expenses out of his own pocket. In 1941,Washington lost patience with him. He was sent to Argentina, where later he continued to annoy his superiors by reporting on the movements of Nazi war criminals. 

Among those helped by Fry a few of the notables were:

  • Hannah Arendt, Philosopher
  • Andri Breton
  • Marc Chagall, Artist
  • Max Ernst
  • Lion Feuchtwanger, Novelist
  • Heinz Jolles
  • Wilfredo Lam
  • Wanda Landowska
  • Jacques Lipchitz
  • Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel
  • Andre Masson
  • Otto Meyerhoff
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Franz Werfel
  • Heinrich Mann

Former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, gave a posthumous award for “constructive dissent” to Hiram (or Harry) Bingham, IV. For over fifty years, the State Department resisted any attempt to honor Bingham. For them he was an insubordinate member of the US diplomatic service, a dangerous maverick who was eventually demoted. Now, after his death, he has been officially recognized as a hero.

Eventually, he was forced out of the American diplomatic service completely. Bingham died almost penniless in 1988. Little was known of his extraordinary activities until his son found some letters in his belongings after his death. He has now been honored by many groups and organizations including the United Nations and the State of Israel. 

At Congregation Or Ami, we teach our Kesher and Mishpacha religious education learning program students to be “upstanders.” An upstander is one who says Hineyni – Here I Am, to do whatever is necessary to help others. An upstander takes serious the mitzvah (religious obligation in Leviticus 19:16, Lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa, do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds. Simply put, when we see someone who is in need of our help, we should help him or her. Sometimes this means taking risks for other people.

From Moses who saw the Egyptian taskmaster beating the old Jewish slave and stepped in to save the man, and Queen Esther who stepped up to save the Jews from Haman, we learn that if we do not do something to help those in need, we are just as guilty as those who have put them in that position. Modern Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “In free society, few are guilty but all are responsible.”

Interested in More Information about Hiram Bingham?
Those interested in Bingham’s activities in Vichy France ought to read Varian Fry’s memoir of the period. Fry, an American correspondent, undertook to help Marc Chagall and others find the paperwork and funds to escape the Vichy zone. See his book Surrender on Demand.

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