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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Holocaust Story of Heroism and History's Neglect

October 25, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

Before he cleans out his Oval Office desk for the last time, maybe Bill Clinton could consider doing something on behalf of Harry Bingham.

It's only 60 years overdue.

Rabbi David Baron, for one, would have no objection to this. He knows an unsung hero when he hears of one.

It's just that like millions of Americans, he hadn't heard of Harry Bingham, at least until a couple of years ago.

"Do you remember when?" he is asked, over lunch at a Westwood deli.

"I do," says Rabbi Baron, who heads a Los Angeles organization called the Committee for Righteous Deeds.

"One day I was talking about my favorite subjects, heroism and altruism, when a friend told me, 'Oh, David, you've just got to meet this fellow up in San Francisco, a historian. His name is Eric Saul.'

"So I called him, and we met, and we struck up a friendship. And that's when he told me some amazing stories."

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Now, most of these stories took place during World War II, or just prior to the United States' intervention in it.

And while a few certainly had to do with Harry Bingham, there were others, not American, whose valor in the face of great danger was similar to his.

These are men whose heroic acts could be viewed as on a par with those of Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner who provided a safe refuge for Jews facing sentences to death camps. Schindlerjuden, such survivors came to be known.

Perhaps the ultimate horror of these stories is that there are still so many more of them to tell.

"You do worry about an overload," Rabbi Baron says. "Some of my fellow Jews would even tell me, 'Oh, no, not another Holocaust story.' "

Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a past director of the Shoah Foundation, once speculated that human beings can't help but suffer from Holocaust burnout and "compassion fatigue." A noted Holocaust historian, Dr. Berenbaum authored a teachers guide for the film "Schindler's List," used to help schoolchildren grasp that story's lessons and impact.

Today, there will be teaching guides and a new film that can help educate young people--plus older ones, hearing these stories for the first time--about Harry Bingham and other courageous men like him.

On film there is "Diplomats for the Damned," which examines non-Jewish men of authority who put their careers and lives in jeopardy during the Holocaust.

A premiere screening of this film, to be aired in November by television's History Channel, will be held tonight at 8 at the motion picture academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater, at 8949 Wilshire, Los Angeles. It will follow a 6:30 fund-raising dinner there organized by the Committee for Righteous Deeds, so that videos and Berenbaum's teaching guides may be distributed to educators throughout California.

Among those expected to be in attendance tonight are sons and daughters of the men featured in "Diplomats for the Damned."

Hiram Bingham IV had 11 children. But there are thousands more, virtual Binghamjuden, who owe him their lives.

Son of a Connecticut governor, he joined the foreign service in 1929 and ultimately was posted in Marseilles, France, as the U.S. vice consul. Against the direct orders of his superiors, Harry Bingham issued visas--many under false names--to Jews that enabled them to avoid concentration camps and even to immigrate to America. He even hid some in his own residence.

Defying State Department policy, Bingham abetted the escapes of thousands, including the painter Marc Chagall, author Franz Werfel and artist Max Ernst. He personally drove to a concentration camp and sneaked anti-Nazi writer Lion Feuchtwanger out in women's clothing, passing him off as his mother-in-law.

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The documentary, narrated by Arthur Kent, profiles not only Bingham but diplomats from Germany, Portugal and Switzerland who boldly resisted Hitler by assisting Jews between 1938 and 1945.

"Not only did these men fail to get recognition, they were punished," notes Rabbi Baron, himself a Holocaust survivor's son.

Bingham, for example, died broke in 1988, never officially honored for following his conscience, rather than following orders.

"Not another" Holocaust story?

Yes, this is another--maybe as good a one as you've never seen.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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