|Saving the Jews of Nazi France |
As Jews in France tried to flee the Nazi occupation, Harry Bingham, an American diplomat, sped them to safety
By Peter Eisner
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe
An internationally known German novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger had been a harsh critic of Adolf Hitler since the 1920s. One of his novels, The Oppermanns, was a thinly veiled exposé of Nazi brutality. He called the Führer's Mein Kampf a 140,000-word book with 140,000 mistakes. "The Nazis had denounced me as Enemy Number One," he once said. They also stripped him of his German citizenship and publicly burned his books.
In July 1940, the Nazis had just occupied Paris, and southeastern France—where Feuchtwanger was living—was controlled by a French government with Nazi sympathies. As the French authorities in the south began rounding up the foreigners in their midst, Feuchtwanger found himself in a lightly guarded detention camp near Nîmes, fearing imminent transfer to the Gestapo. On the afternoon of Sunday, July 21, he took a walk by a swimming hole where inmates were allowed to bathe, debating whether to flee the camp or wait for exit papers that the French had promised.
Suddenly, he spotted a woman he knew along the road to the camp and hurried over. "I have been waiting for you here," she said, shepherding him to a car. A few hours later, the novelist was safely in Marseille, enjoying the hospitality of a low-ranking U.S. diplomat named Hiram Bingham IV. Bingham, 37, was descended from prominent politicians, social scientists and missionaries. His grandfather's book A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands presaged James Michener's Hawaii. His father, Hiram Bingham III, was a renowned explorer and, later, a U.S. senator. After a prep school and Ivy League education, Hiram, known as Harry, seemed destined for a brilliant career in the Foreign Service.
But as World War II approached, Bingham made a series of life-altering choices. By sheltering Feuchtwanger in his private villa, Bingham violated both French law and U.S. policy. To draw attention to hunger and disease in the French camps, he challenged indifference and anti-Semitism among his State Department superiors. In speeding up visa and travel documents at the Marseille consulate, he disobeyed orders from Washington. In all, an estimated 2,500 refugees were able to flee to safety because of Bingham's help. Some of his beneficiaries were famous—Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst—but most were not.
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