Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV was an American diplomat who helped thousands of Jews escape from Nazi-occupied France.
Born to a wealthy and illustrious New England family, Harry Bingham was the son of Hiram Bingham III, former Governor of Connecticut and U.S. Senator. Harry attended the prestigious Groton prep school and Yale University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1925 before attending law school at Harvard.
After graduating from Harvard, Harry joined the foreign service. In 1939, he was posted to the U.S. Consulate in Marseilles, France. Harry's job was issuing entry visas to the United States. After Germany invaded France in 1940, the Nazis started arresting Jews and sending them to internment camps. Jews poured into Marseilles, hoping to get visas.
The U.S. State Department wanted to remain on good terms with the collaborationist Vichy government, and they instructed diplomats not to issue visas to Jewish refugees. Most foreign service workers dutifully followed orders... except for Harry Bingham. He wanted to see for himself what was going on, and he visited some of the internment camps where Jews were being sent. They were squalid holding pens for Jews on their way to brutal death camps. Harry was horrified and determined to do whatever he could to save French Jews.
Harry started speeding up Jewish visa applications, blatantly disregarding orders from Washington. He issued false travel documents to hundreds of families, including prominent writers and artists such as Jewish painter Marc Chagall. Harry and Marc remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
Fred Buch, an engineer from Austria, was another Jew who received an exit visa from Harry Bingham. Fred later said, “God, it was such a relief. Such a sweet voice. You felt so safe there in the consulate when he was there. You felt a new life will start. [Harry Bingham] looked like an angel, only without wings. The angel of liberation.”
Harry was able to save Jews for ten months, until he was abruptly terminated from his Marseilles position in 1941. Harry was sent to Argentina, where he continued helping the Jewish people by tracking down Nazi war criminals who were hiding in South America. The State Department frowned on these activities, too, and he was pushed into resigning.
Harry returned to the family farm in Connecticut with his wife and eleven children. He became an entrepreneur, but none of his businesses were successful. His children were not raised with the wealth and privilege he’d enjoyed as a youth, but they adored their father.
Harry Bingham died in 1988, without telling anybody about his wartime heroism. In 1991, Harry's son Thomas found a bundle of old papers behind a chimney in the family home. The documents revealed that Harry had saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps.
Harry was posthumously honored by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who presented Harry’s children with a “Constructive Dissent” award. In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp portraying Hiram Bingham IV as a Distinguished American Diplomat. That same year, the U.S. Episcopal Church named him an American Saint.
For disobeying unjust orders and saving thousands of Jews from certain death, we honor Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV as this week’s Thursday Hero.