Vice Consul Hiram Bingham in Marseille. He and his colleague Myles Standish issued visas to refugees at the U.S. Consulate in Marseille, saving hundreds of lives in the process. Image courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
By Lindsay Henderson
When the U.S. Consulate General in Marseille cleaned out its basement file room in the summer of 2014, an unusual item came to light. Too large to fit in a shredder, a massive old ledger book was set aside. One of the consulate’s locally employed staff flipped through it, noting the many names of famous Americans listed on its pages. Recognizing it for what it was—the consulate’s register of passport services for U.S. citizens from the early days of World War II—a record of a community during wartime and a document of brave Americans from all walks of life who took great risks to save the lives of others, she put it in a drawer for safekeeping.
The port city of Marseille on France’s southern coast has been a crossroads for migration since ancient times. During the 1930s, it hosted thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the city also hosted German Jews, dissidents, artists, and others who fled the Nazi regime. When Germany invaded France in June 1940, additional refugees flocked to Marseille from Paris and other parts of Nazi-occupied northern France. Many of these refugees—often stateless—were forced into camps located throughout the region, where conditions were often grim, and the threat of being sent to Nazi-occupied territory was constant.
One way to be released from the camps in Vichy France in 1940-1941 was to obtain a visa to immigrate to another country, including the United States. The greatest obstacle to obtaining a U.S. visa, however, was the Department of State’s policy toward visas for these refugees at the time. The Department instructed consular officers working at embassies and consulates overseas to delay visa issuance as long as possible, which frustrated refugees’ attempts to reach places safer than Vichy France.
Among these refugees were a number of famous individuals—authors, playwrights, artists, opposition politicians, and others who had run afoul of the Nazi regime and ended up in France. Among them were artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, and authors Lion Feuchtwanger and Hannah Arendt. Concerned for their welfare, a private American group called the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) developed a list of anti-Nazi refugees who were in grave danger of being turned over to the Nazis. Reaching out to Eleanor Roosevelt for assistance, they managed to convince Congress to allocate a limited number of non-quota immigrant visas for these individuals.
The ERC hired American journalist Varian Fry to go to Marseille, locate the people on the list, and to try to get them out of France. Using both legal and illegal techniques—including helping people legitimately obtain visas and exit permits, but also facilitating the smuggling of some travelers across the border into Spain—Fry helped more than 2,000 people emigrate to the United States. While Fry was aiding well-known dissidents, other refugee organizations, including those run by the Quakers, Unitarians, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Red Cross, were also in Marseille helping ordinary people who were refugees in the region to escape.
Eventually, Fry was forced to leave France by the Vichy regime. However, before he left France, his passport was validated for his travel by ConGen Marseille, which he visited on July 11, 1941. His visit was recorded in the consulate’s passport log.
In their efforts, Fry and other rescue groups were aided by two American consular officers at ConGen Marseille, who quietly defied Department policy and helped as many refugees escape as they were able. Their names were Hiram Bingham—known as Harry—and Myles Standish. Neither Bingham nor Standish seemed to fit the mold of typical career diplomats for the time, but for the hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals they were able to help, their efforts were the difference between life and death.
Harry Bingham was a family man with 11 children, son of U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham, the first American to explore the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu; his mother was an heiress of the Tiffany and Co. fortune. Bingham was educated in private schools, and eventually graduated from Yale. He worked as a clerk at Embassy Tokyo before returning to get his law degree from Harvard. He returned to the Department, serving in Warsaw and London before arriving in France in 1936.
Myles Standish came from a very different background. Raised as an only child of a working-class family in New York City, he joined the Foreign Service as a clerk in 1930, and served in Cuba, before working in Manchester, England, where he was one of the first Foreign Service officers granted permission to marry a foreign citizen while in active service. Newly married to his British wife, he was assigned to Marseille in 1939 to be the chief of the consulate’s visa section, accompanied by his wife and their young daughter.
Despite the Department’s order to slow visa processing, Standish and Bingham found ways to issue visas and provide travel documents to stateless refugees who no longer had passports. By issuing visas on documents they created themselves—“affidavits in lieu of passport”—they are believed to have issued at least 2,500 visas, saving the lives of people who otherwise would have likely been deported to Nazi death camps.
Issuing visas was not the only support that Bingham and Standish provided to refugees and the organizations trying to get them out of Vichy France. Unbeknownst to their superiors, both consular officers played a far more substantial role in helping Varian Fry and others smuggle people to safety. In the summer of 1940, Standish borrowed Bingham’s car and drove to Les Milles, a camp in southern France where Lion Feuchtwanger was imprisoned. Feuchtwanger was a German Jewish author and playwright hated by Hitler for his sharp criticism of the Nazi Party that began years before they came to power. Disguising Feuchtwanger as an old woman, Standish told French officials at checkpoints that the old lady in the back seat was his mother-in-law from the United States. Back in Marseille, the consular officers hid Feuchtwanger at Bingham’s house—without the knowledge of their superiors—for several weeks until he was given an alias and a visa and smuggled out of France. Feuchtwanger lived in the United States until his death in 1958.
Both Standish and Bingham were reassigned in the spring of 1941. Bingham was sent briefly to Portugal and then to Argentina, and he resigned from the Foreign Service in 1946. Standish returned to Washington and was assigned to Karachi, but the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 disrupted travel plans, and he was reassigned to Aruba. Standish resigned from the Foreign Service in 1942. Both Standish and Bingham and their family members’ names appear among those in the passport register, along with hundreds of other Americans who were either resident in the Marseille area, fleeing Europe, or arriving on official business.
Among those traveling through Marseille on official business was James Roosevelt, the president’s son, who visited the consulate on August 4, 1941, probably on his way to Switzerland as part of an extensive trip to signal to allied and neutral countries that the United States would likely join the war. American novelist, poet, and playwright Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, appeared at the consulate on June 20, 1941, to validate their passports. Similarly, Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim stopped by the consulate for passport services on March 22, 1941, as did her ex-husband, artist Laurence Vail, and their daughter, Pegeen Vail on April 9, 1941.
American citizens who turned out to be Nazi and Soviet spies are also listed in the log. Eccentric American-born millionaire Charles Bedeaux and his wife, Fern, visited the consulate for passport services on August 24, 1941. A Nazi spy, Bedeaux was captured by Allied forces in Algeria in 1943. The U.S. government charged him with treason, and he committed suicide in prison in Miami in 1944. U.S. citizen Noel Field spied for the Soviet Union while working for the Department’s Bureau of European Affairs in the 1930s. By 1941, he was the director of the American Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s relief mission in Marseille, which provided relief for Jewish refugees, antifascists, and leftists, helping many escape to Switzerland and elsewhere. He visited ConGen Marseille on June 12, 1941, for passport services and spent much of the war in Switzerland. Field was arrested in Prague in 1949, and handed over to the Hungarian secret police, where he served as a pretext for show trials of communist functionaries. After his release from prison, he stayed in Hungary, where he died in 1970.
The passport log continues to provide clues to the stories of the U.S. citizens who passed through Marseille in the final months before the United States entered the war. Not all of those who appeared for passport services survived the war. However, it is both a document of an expatriate community in crisis and a testament to the many brave Americans who took great risks to be of service to others in a dark period in history. To make this information accessible to future generations of researchers, the Marseille passport log has been digitized for the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the original record now survives in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
The locally employed staff member at ConGen Marseille who salvaged the Marseille passport log from the shredder had a strong personal connection to it. She recognized its historical value because she knew the names of consular officers Bingham and Standish, both listed among its pages—the same consular officers who issued immigrant visas to her mother, uncles, and grandparents at ConGen Marseille in May 1941, and in doing so, saved their lives.
Lindsay Henderson is consul general at Embassy Lima.