The excerpt from The Rescuers documentary film begins in June 1940, when the Germans attacked France and quickly captured Paris. France was partitioned into a northern zone, directly administrated by the Germans, and a southern zone, which remained nominally independent. The film excerpt focuses on the rescue efforts by Hiram Bingham IV, an American diplomat stationed in Marseille, France, from 1940 to 1941. As the Germans and their French collaborators began to round up the Jews for deportation, Bingham, who was in charge of administering visas, defied the United States State Department’s policies and issued hundreds of travel and immigration papers. Bingham and a network of rescuers helped as many as 2,500 Jews escape Nazi persecution in France.
- How do you balance your responsibility to authority and your own moral principals?
- What are the responsibilities of the United States and other nations during times of genocide and mass violence?
- How much power do individuals, without the support of institutions, have to change the course of history?
Jews have lived in France since the time of the Roman Empire. Despite being subjected to episodes of antisemitic violence, expulsion, and persecution, the Jewish community enjoyed long periods of relative safety and tolerance. At times it flourished. In pre-modern times, this community also saw the rise of several figures who contributed enormously to the development of Judaism, especially Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040–1105), commonly known as Rashi, who is regarded as one of the most important Biblical interpreters to this day. France was the first European nation to emancipate its Jewish population, which until the late eighteenth century lived in Europe under an array of religious and economic restrictions. But emancipation, given to the Jews during the French Revolution, was granted to individuals but not the community. Thus, France’s modern Judaism became a private matter rather than a religion practiced in public. Indeed, since the nineteenth century, Jews worked hard to assimilate, embracing French customs, dress, and culture while practicing Judaism, for the most part, at home.
Nineteenth-century Europe saw individual Jews becoming increasingly successful in politics, trade, banking, the arts, and the sciences. Among them were some of the most famous artists and writers of their day, including Amedeo Modigliani, Marcel Proust, Marc Chagall, and Sarah Bernhardt. In addition, by the late nineteenth century, several Jewish families rose to high prominence—the Rothschilds in banking and the Ephrussis in commerce—and expanded their business empires to many western European capitals.1 Although still a minority in affluent circles, their prominence would symbolize the possibility of full and productive integration. For antisemites, however, they would become a lightning rod for vicious attacks on what they falsely saw as the exploitative or parasitic nature of Jews.
France’s liberal approach to Judaism was tested by the Dreyfus Affair, during which large segments of the population exhibited deep-seated antisemitism. Wrongfully accused of selling military documents to Germany by his commanding officers in the French army, the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of treason and, in a humiliating public ceremony, was stripped of his military honors and sent to jail in 1894. When documents implicating another officer surfaced, Dreyfus was retried, but the evidence was discarded quickly by a military court, and Dreyfus was again found guilty on these and other charges.
The trial divided the French on the issue of the Jews in France.2 The liberal-minded members of French society accepted them as generally equal citizens. In fact, there was considerable support for Dreyfus from people as significant as Émile Zola, France’s most popular author, and Georges Clemenceau, who would be premier of France during World War I. But there were also antisemitic currents in French society that depicted Jews as disloyal and morally inferior. For many Catholics, Jews were falsely held responsible for the death of Jesus, and in the popular press, Dreyfus was often portrayed as Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. The situation grew out of control as antisemitic riots erupted in many towns, causing widespread property damage and terror. But others in France took the position that law and order must prevail and that the pernicious influence of antisemitic elements in the legal and political systems, including those within the church and army, was undemocratic and unwelcome. Only later, amid new revelations about an army cover-up and growing public pressure, was the trial reopened. In the end, the court found Alfred Dreyfus not guilty in 1906, and he was cleared of all charges.3
For many Jews and French men and women, this was a turning point, a moment when the democratic republic had defeated both the antisemitic and the anti-liberal forces in its midst. A law that banished religion from education, culture, and politics was passed in 1905. It was designed, among other things, to protect the rights of minorities.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Jews of France were not only well tolerated but in fact deeply integrated—a portion of its community even converted to Catholicism—making a very visible contribution to its thriving cultural and political life. Jews were now in leading positions across the cultural and public spheres. An example was the election of the socialist Léon Blum, a Jew, as France’s first Jewish prime minister in 1936.
For many European Jews, prewar Paris was a symbol of freedom, youth, and creativity.4 After World War I, a new wave of Jewish immigrants arrived: Jews who escaped persecution in Poland and were attracted by France’s postwar demand for labor. They too fell in love with the country; a reflection of this generation’s view of the state of freedom enjoyed by France’s Jews is captured in a Yiddish proverb translated as “the Jews are as happy as God in France.”5
When the Great Depression struck Europe after the stock market crash in 1929, France became a less hospitable place for Jews; quotas were established in 1932, and France saw the rise of the League of the Far Right (Ligues d’extrême droite), groups of right-wing organizations who shared an antisocialist, ultra-nationalistic, and authoritarian ideology. These organizations were also anti-immigrant and xenophobic, so when World War II began, antisemitism was already pervasive in France.
As the film excerpt shows, the Germans invaded France in June 1940, and the government surrendered with little resistance. France was now partitioned into two zones. The northern zone was directly administrated by the Germans, with Paris as its capital. The southern zone remained nominally independent under the leadership of Maréchal Philippe Pétain, and the town of Vichy (for which this government was named) was its administrative capital.
The Vichy government, organized in June 1940, adopted a policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany. Not only was the Vichy government willing to accept occupation but officials of the government participated in the mass arrests of Jews in both the northern and southern zones of France. (The hardcore French-Nazi politicians stayed outside the Vichy government.) Occasionally its persecution of the Jews went further than the Germans demanded.6 Between France’s surging antisemitism and the added presence of the Germans, Jews faced increased discrimination and were deprived of basic rights and protections. Historians point out that the French were even trying to outdo the Germans; The Jewish Statutes (Statuts des juifs, enacted in October 1940 and June 1941) were “created purely on the initiative of the French government and not by the Nazis themselves.”7 These laws severely restricted the role of Jews in the military and government as well as in many other areas of public life. They also repealed citizenship from most Jews, and many Jewish businesses were “Aryanized” (or confiscated). Moreover, the laws enacted in 1941 further expanded restrictions on Jewish occupations to almost every other field, including commerce, banking, law, and medicine. In June 1942 all Jews were finally completely excluded from French society when a new law dictated that they all wear a yellow star.
In the spring of 1941, under German orders, the French began to round up the Jews and place them in transitional camps to prepare them for deportation to Auschwitz. (Their actions culminated the next year, in the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of July 1942.8) Fear and desperation now spread widely among the remaining Jews and the thousands of refugees who escaped areas previously taken by the Germans.
The first Jewish refugees arrived in France from Germany before the war in response to anti-Jewish policies the Nazis had been enacting since 1933. Others came after Austria was annexed to Germany in 1938 (the Anschluss). To manage the influx of refugees, France set up detention centers. Those later became concentration and transitional camps from which the German army deported Jews during the war to Auschwitz. As many as 75,000 of the population of 300,000 Jews living in France at that time were murdered.
As the Germans advanced into France, thousands of refugees attempted to escape to the unoccupied southern zone. They hoped that the Vichy government would leave them unharmed. Their hopes were soon frustrated by mass arrests, denunciations, and detentions of thousands, as well as by a tight emigration policy, which allowed very few to exit France legally.9 Of the tens of thousands of refugees in the south, a few thousand reached the southern port city of Marseilles, from which they hoped to escape Europe. Given the restrictive immigration policies of the democracies such as Britain and the United States, and without citizenship or immigration papers, there was nowhere for them to go. Many of them turned to the American consulate for help.
The Jewish refugees now faced a new hurdle; they hit what historian David S. Wyman called “paper walls.”10 The United States State Department was known for its anti-immigrant and antisemitic attitudes.11 Exploiting Americans’ fear that the refugees from Germany and Austria were Nazi spies, they built bureaucratic walls designed to stop immigrants, undesirable travelers, and refugees from coming to the United States.
Most crucial in implementing those policies was Breckinridge Long, who had served as the Assistant Secretary of State since 1940 and headed the department’s Special War Problems Division. He viewed Jews as “lawless, scheming, defiant, in many ways unassimilable.”12 In a memorandum from June 26, 1940, Long wrote the following:
We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls, to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.13
He was not alone. Since 1924, America’s attitude toward immigration had changed dramatically, and a protectionist approach, seeking to limit immigration to a minimum, prevailed. Quotas were set, and many new hurdles were placed to stop immigration from certain “undesirable” areas of Europe. These quotas were consistently not fulfilled because the United States State Department and its consuls abroad used every bureaucratic measure to slow down the flow of incoming immigrants. As the founding director of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Rafael Medoff, argued, “The annual combined quota for Germany and Austria, for example, was just 27,370 persons, and for Poland just 6,542. Even those meager allotments were almost always under-filled.”14 In fact, “the effect of the immigration policies set by Long’s department was that, during American involvement in the war, 90 percent of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German and Italian control were never filled. If they had been, an additional 190,000 people could have escaped the atrocities being committed by the Nazis.”15
Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, the Diplomat
It is true that not all members of the United States State Department shared the narrow views of Long. Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV was an example. He came from a family of wealth and privilege.16 Like other members of the United States Protestant elite, the family cultivated the idea of Christian stewardship, devoting their lives to spreading God’s goodness on earth through charity and public service.17
Bingham was educated at the elite Groton School and then went on to Yale University and Harvard Law School. Following his graduation from Harvard, Bingham elected to continue the family tradition of joining the Foreign Service with a position in the United States State Department. He served in Japan, London, and Warsaw until 1937, when, at the age of 34, he was assigned to Marseille as a vice consul.
As a consul, he was in charge of administering visas. His role was to manage the ever-growing number of requests for travel and immigration visas to the United States. Bingham soon found himself caught between the United States’ prohibitive immigration policy and the persecution policies of the Vichy government. In the face of United States' immigration restrictions, he had to decide what to do with the hundreds of refugees—mostly Jews who, through no fault of their own, lost everything and now faced the prospect of being deported to their death by the Gestapo. While other American consuls took a firm stance and refused to grant travel papers, Bingham took an entirely different position.
Bingham defied the State Department’s policy and began to issue travel and immigration visas, replacements for lost or stolen passports, and fake IDs to people who were sought by the Nazis. As Peter Eisner notes, “State Department files show that Bingham issued dozens of visas daily, and many other elements of his work—sheltering refugees, writing travel papers, meeting with escape groups—were not always recorded.”18
In addition to liberally issuing travel documents, Bingham used his connections and resources to provide other means of assistance. He was helped by the American rescuer Varian Fry, who was sent by the American Emergency Rescue Committee. He assisted Fry in locating detainees, providing humanitarian help to them, and securing their release or escape. As Sir Martin Gilbert points out in the film, “He understood that Fry was helping to save lives and so he supported him. He provided almost a clandestine cloak of American legality.” Bingham also worked with Frank Bohn of the American Federation of Labor, who arrived in southern France with a mission to help European labor leaders escape the Gestapo.
The challenges Bingham would face came to light in one case very clearly: the rescue of the Czech-German Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, who wrote scathing critiques of Hitler and his regime. Feuchtwanger was perhaps at the top of the Nazis’ most-wanted list, and he was arrested by the French and sent to a concentration camp. At the initiative of Feuchtwanger's wife, Marta, Bingham (and later Fry) learned of Feuchtwanger’s location in the internment camp Les Mill and began to arrange for his escape. They made arrangements to pick Feuchtwanger up and drove him to Marseille, where Bingham hosted him for a few weeks. He put the Feuchtwangers in touch with the Sharps, an American couple from the Unitarian Service Committee, who escorted them along a smugglers’ path through Vichy to Lisbon, Portugal, and eventually sent them to the United States.19
Feuchtwanger left with false papers and travel documents in mid-September 1940. This action by the American rescue network did not go unnoticed, and the government was quick to respond. On September 18, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent a telegram to the American consulate, warning that the rescue efforts of Bingham, Fry, and others “violated the laws of friendly nations”). Hull continued:
You should inform Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry . . . that while the Department is sympathetic to the plight of unfortunate refugees, and has authorized consular officers to give immediate and sympathetic consideration to their application for visas, this Government cannot repeat not countenance the activities as reported of Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry and other persons, however well-meaning their motives may be, in carrying on activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.20
As many as 2,500 people would ultimately benefit from Bingham’s actions. Among them were the French painter Marc Chagall, the political scientist Hannah Arendt, and the Nobel Prize laureate Otto Meyerhof. Bingham hosted Heinrich Mann, brother of the famous novelist Thomas Mann (in exile at this time due to his marriage to a Jewish woman). Thomas Mann’s son, Thomas (Golo) Mann Jr., also escaped France with Bingham’s help. But many unknown refugees were also saved by Bingham’s actions. Martin Gilbert notes:
It’s not known how many benefited from the efforts of Bingham and his staff and Fry and his team, but it certainly numbered in the tens of thousands. These artists were able to reach the United States and make a contribution, which, had it not been for Hitler, they would have made to Germany and Austria, to the benefit of those countries.
The risks involved were great. Several diplomats who tried to help the refugees were arrested by either the French or the Germans (though for the most part, the arrests took place after the Germans occupied the southern part of France in 1942). But the United States State Department could not accept Bingham’s rescue efforts. It therefore decided to end Bingham’s career in France. He was transferred to Lisbon, Portugal, in the spring of 1941 and shortly thereafter, in September, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he could no longer defy the State Department by helping Jews and other refugees.
Yet, even after he arrived in Buenos Aires, Bingham warned the State Department that Nazi officials and officers were slipping out of Europe, some leaving with stolen items and finding refuge under the favorable dictatorship of Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón.
After the war, Bingham asked to serve in a United States Nazi-hunting operation, but his request was denied. He subsequently resigned and left the service altogether, living an unassuming life of economic hardship with his wife and 11 children. Bingham’s deeds went unrecognized until the years following his death in 1988. He received several awards, honors, and titles posthumously.
- 1 : The story of the Ephrussi family is beautifully told by Edmund de Waal in his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). The family rose to prominence on the basis of its grain trade business in Odessa, which expanded enormously and added international banking and commerce when the members moved to Vienna and Paris. De Waal is one of Britain’s most famous ceramic artists.
- 2 : Margot Stern Storm, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 1994), 97-98.
- 3 : Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 2012), 208–215.
- 4 : For an account of the magnetic power of Paris for young and creative Jews, see Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday: An Autobiography (Zurich: Williams Verlag, 2009), 151–52.
- 5 : “Vivre heureux ‘comme Dieu en France', proclamait un vieux dicton yiddish répandu en Europe orientale parmi les ashkénazes fascinés par ce pays de liberté qui, le premier, émancipa ses juifs.” Eli Barnavi, “Heureux comme un juif en France,” Marianne 26 Octobre 2012, accessed April 8, 2013, http://www.marianne.net/Heureux-comme-un-juif-en-France_a223562.html. We thank Daniel Cohen for this and other helpful suggestions.
- 6 : Maura Casey, “A Diplomat’s Quiet Battle To Rescue Jews Emerges,” The New York Times, July 11, 1999.
- 7 : “Statut des Juifs,” Yad Vashem website, accessed April 8, 2013.
- 8 : For a gripping account of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup through the eyes of a young girl, see Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel, Sarah’s Key (New York: St. Martin Press, 2008).
- 9 : “France,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, accessed April 8, 2013, http://www.ushmm.org/.
- 10 : David S. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938–1941 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968).
- 11 : Jean Edward Smith, FDR (New York: Random House, 2008), 417.
- 12 : Ted Morgan, FDR: A Biography (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1985), 584.
- 13 : “Memo from Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long to State Department officials dated June 26, 1940, outlining effective ways to obstruct the granting of U.S. visas,” PBS’s American Experience website, accessed March 20, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/.
- 14 : Rafael Medoff. “An American Hero of the Holocaust,” The Jewish Press, August 9, 2006, accessed March 22, 2013, http://www.jewishpressads.com/. See the primary source document provided in this section.
- 15 : “Breckinridge Long (1881 -1958),” PBS American Experience website, accessed May 16, 2013.
- 16 : His mother was the granddaughter of the founder of the famous jeweler Tiffany & Co. His great-grandfathers were missionaries in Hawaii, and his father and grandfather were well-known missionaries, explorers, and politicians. Harry’s father, Hiram Bingham III, was a well-known explorer who was the first Westerner to discover Machu Picchu in Peru; he was a senator and governor from Connecticut.
- 17 : This Protestant vision was not without prejudice toward the poor, and non-Christians and critics sometime view it as patronizing and even harmful (for example, in their missionary work abroad). The Binghams had been active in Hawaii, the South Pacific, and Peru as missionaries, cultural anthropologists, and educators. Hiram Bingham I was the founder of the Punahou School, from which Barack Obama and many other dignitaries graduated.
- 18 : Peter Eisner, “Saving the Jews of Nazi France,” Smithsonian magazine, March 2009, accessed March 22, 2013.
- 19 : “Overview,” Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War, directed by Artemis Joukowsky, produced by Matthew Justus. (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), accessed March 11, 2013.
- 20 : Secretary of State Cordell Hull to the American Embassy in Vichy, France, telegram, September 18, 1940. “Hiram (‘Harry’) Bingham IV Homepage,” last modified April 16, 2012, accessed March 20, 2013.