The rich and politically connected Roosevelt, Kennedy and Bush families spawned future U.S. presidents and Harry was born to that level of wealth and privilege in the Bingham family.
Born on July 17th, 1903, Harry’s parents were former Connecticut Governor and U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham lll and his first wife, Alfreda Mitchell, an heir to the Tiffany fortune.
In 1925 Harry graduated from Yale and later from Harvard with a law degree. As had members of the Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushs, Harry went into public service, in his case the diplomatic core.
Harry served in various U.S. Embassies rising to Vice Consul in France in 1939, serving in Marseille. And he visited Nazi Germany and was profoundly affected by the horrors he saw as Jews and others were brutalized.
On June 10, 1940 Adolf Hitler’s military machine attacked France and the French soon surrendered.
The Nazis began rounding up Jews and other enemies of the state and locked them away. Thousands of people fled to Marseille to appeal for visas to the U.S. and to other distant destinations.
But the U.S. was officially neutral, and to avoid offending the Germans and their French Vichy government, the U.S. government directed its diplomats not to get involved with people attempting to flee.
Harry refused to follow orders. He visited some of the lockups, which would eventually hold 46,000 people and saw the horror: food shortages, elbow to elbow living conditions and rampant sickness and death.
After criticizing U.S. State Department anti-Semitism and indifference to the suffering, he took action. Working with rescue worker Varian Fry, Harry began issuing visas.
In 10 months, it is estimated Harry rescued 2,500 people most of them Jews. But when the U.S. government learned what Harry was doing, they angrily transferred him to Portugal and then to Argentina.
But instead of trying to salvage his political career, in 1945 as Germany fell and many Nazis fled to South America, from his post in Argentina Harry tracked what were now Nazi war criminals for arrest and trial.
By doing this without authorization, Harry had again violated U.S. policy and this finished his career. Harry returned to his Connecticut home and until his death on January 12th, 1988 at the age of 84, he painted landscapes and did business.
During his lifetime, Harry said little about his heroic activities that ended his political career. But in 1991, his widow Rose and son Thomas found some of his Marseille materials, documenting his help to fleeing Jews and others, and donated them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Soon the family discovered more of Harry’s papers, and he has since been honored posthumously by Israel, the United Nations and ironically, by the U.S. government.
In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the Bingham family with a “Constructive Dissent” award, saying Harry “had risked his life and his career, put it on the line, to help over 2,500 Jews and others who were on Nazi death lists to leave for America in 1940 and 1941.”
In 2006, the U.S. issued a stamp in his honor. On March 28th, 2011 the Simon Wiesenthal Center posthumously awarded Harry their Medal of Valor; this among many such honors Harry has been awarded.
But in Harry’s time, there were no awards. He did what he did as a man of compassion, conscience and courage who offered a helping hand when it was most needed.