Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

My friend John Beach, that most excellent of Episcopal priests serving (with his lady wife Denise) as Rector of Emmanuel Church in Geneva, Switzerland (part of the American Convocation of Churches in Europe) has written a letter to his friends about a man named Hiram Bingham. John's letter is reprinted here with permission.


Dear ones,

Denise and I were at a conference in Nice last weekend and were struck by the beauty and soothing climate. After the conference, we attended the Chagall museum and were moved by the paintings of this French Jewish painter. It was in this museum, that I came upon the story of Hiram Bingham (for his biography you can look at his Wikipedia entry

Be certain to read about Hiram Bingham the IV, for there is a long line of impressive Hiram Binghams.

Anxious to limit immigration to the United States and to maintain good relations with the Vichy government, the State Department actively discouraged diplomats from helping refugees. Bingham disobeyed his directives and issued between 2-3,000 visas over the course of the next year. Many of these were hidden in the American Episcopal church in Nice before they could be given transport.

When his superiors discovered what he had been doing, he was immediately fired. His family, however, was very influential, so he was given another post in Buenos Aires (then considered a hardship post) during which time he was instrumental in locating Nazi war criminals after the war. The state department become so fed up with his insubordination that he was fired from this position and moved to Salem, Connecticut where he disappeared into obscurity (I am told that Salem, Connecticut is an excellent place to disappear into obscurity). He arrived in the U.S. at age 44, and was never able to get a job for the rest of his life.

He tried several attempts to start small businesses, all of which failed. He died in Salem in 1988.

No one in Salem (not even his own children) were aware of his heroism until they were contacted by the Holocaust museum 5 years ago who wanted to commemorate Bingham. His own children were astonished when, over the course of 2001-2002 several memorials and a postage stamp were issued in his name.

Among the many people given visa, was Marc Chagall who was able to spend the war years in the U.S. Upon his return to Nice, he painted a series of oils paintings depicting the Exodus. I spent an hour looking at one in particular the Chagall museum on Monday. It shows the sinister forces in dark grey tones representing the Egyptian army chasing the Jews towards the Red Sea. One of can make out one person in the grey mass who is a bit separated from the rest, who has a yellow foot (the only bit of color on that part of the canvas). There is an ancient Midrash which states that the son of Pharaoh continued to think of Moses has a brother, so that his heart would not allow him to join in the genocide. The yellow foot was meant to represent the son of Pharaoh. It was also meant to represent Hiram Bingham. Chagall wrote in a letter found in Bingham’s attic where his confused children sought for documents for the holocaust museum. In it he stated that even in the hearts of those who are the beneficiaries of cruelty and injustice, a shred of human decency emerges and we can see that the darkness is not completely dark.

He referred to Bingham as a “bureaucrat par excellence”.

I spent a good while meditating on that yellow foot.