The Silent Savior
Abbie Endicott knew something had derailed her father’s career in France. What she didn’t know was that his actions saved thousands of lives.
Bethesda resident Abbie Endicott holds a book written by her older brother, Robert Kim Bingham, about their father's heroic acts.
Photo credit: Michael Ventura
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Her mother’s cryptic remarks and her father’s occasional World War II stories hinted at a secret past. The secret itself unspooled slowly: an
invitation, a stash of letters discovered in a closet, a niece’s grade school interview.
Early on, Abbie Endicott’s father, Hiram Bingham IV, had appeared headed for an illustrious career. His great-grandfather, Hiram Bingham, had led the first group of missionaries to Hawaii in the early 1800s and created an alphabet for the Hawaiian language. “[James] Michener’s book Hawaii is loosely based on my great-great-grandfather,” Endicott says. Bingham IV’s father, Bingham III, rediscovered Machu Picchu and has been touted as a 20th-century Indiana Jones.
And Bingham IV himself had graduated from Yale, spent a year studying law at Harvard, then decided to take the Foreign Service exam, scoring third highest in his class. “Everyone had expected him to become an ambassador,” Endicott says. But his career in the Foreign Service faltered after only eight years. He served as U.S. vice consul in charge of visas in Marseille, France, for 10 months during World War II, but ended up being demoted and sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina. He resigned four years later. Endicott knew her father had left the State Department under a cloud. But what kind of cloud remained a mystery.
“All my mother would say about why he left was that ‘he was obeying the law,’ and she’d point upwards, adding, ‘There’s a higher law,’ ” says Endicott, a statuesque, silver-haired woman of 64 who is sitting in her Bethesda living room on a beautiful late summer day. “I always sensed there was something else she was saying, but wasn’t sure what.” And she wouldn’t know for decades.
After he resigned from the Foreign Service, Bingham, his wife and their eight children went to live in the Salem, Conn., farmhouse he’d inherited years earlier. Endicott was just 4 months old. Her parents eventually would have three more children. The dark red farmhouse had been built in 1759 and didn’t have hot running water. Yet Bingham and his wife, Rose, never let their children see how difficult the change in circumstances was. “Years later I read my mother’s journal, and she’d written about how hard it was when my father resigned,” Endicott says. “They’d had servants at their various postings and beautiful homes with marble staircases, high ceilings, and she wanted to know, ‘What am I going to do with eight children in a broken-down farmhouse?’ Reading that entry was the first time I understood how hard his resignation must have been for her.” In order to save money, her father planted a garden, had a cow for milking and raised chickens. According to Endicott, he also dabbled in real estate, but it was his income from investments that kept the family going.
“My father wasn’t the best businessman, but he was the best father,” Endicott says. “He was completely there for me. He taught us children sports, dancing, painting and music. I remember him teaching me to ride a horse. He first taught me to talk gently to the horse so the horse would learn to trust me. I’ll always remember that. We didn’t have a lot as children. My parents struggled, but I didn’t realize that till I was much older.”
Neither her mother nor father ever talked about why he’d resigned or what had led to his demotion. “I knew very little of my father’s life during World War II. [But] we received Christmas cards from the artist Marc Chagall. When asked about it, my father explained [that] he and some colleagues had helped Chagall get out of France during the war,” Endicott says.
When she and her siblings were children, one of their favorite stories told around the kitchen table was of their father helping writer Lion Feuchtwanger escape from France. They loved hearing that their father hid Feuchtwanger in the family’s Marseille home, dressed him in women’s clothing and pretended he was their grandmother from Georgia. “Father explained to neighbors that ‘she’ was visiting, didn’t speak French and was really shy.”
Then there was the book Endicott had always seen around the house. Published in 1945, Surrender on Demand detailed Varian Fry’s efforts as an American journalist to rescue people from the Nazis through the Emergency Rescue Committee, which operated out of Marseille. Inside the cover was inscribed: “To Hiram Bingham, Jr., Partner in the “crime” of saving human lives, Varian Fry.”
“When I asked Father about it, he said that Eleanor Roosevelt had put together a list of artists, scientists and writers that she wanted saved, and he and his colleagues helped do that,” Endicott says. Bingham made it sound as if he had merely been doing his job.
In 1965, Abbie married William Endicott and began married life at age 19. And all curiosity about her father’s past was forgotten. Her father’s secrets remained unknown for nearly three more decades.
In 1988, Hiram Bingham IV died after several months of ill health. Five years later, an invitation from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., arrived at the home of Endicott’s mother in Salem, Conn. Bingham and his wife were invited to attend a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery honoring the rescuers who had helped Jews and others escape from the Nazis. Her mother was too ill to travel, so Endicott and an older brother, Robert Kim, went. “This was my first inkling that my father was recognized as a rescuer. He certainly never presented himself as one when he was alive,” Endicott says. But since her father wasn’t discussed at any length during the ceremony, she figured he was being honored just for helping the famous people Eleanor Roosevelt had encouraged the State Department to save.
Then in 1996, Eric Saul contacted the family. Saul, executive director of the West Virginia-based Institute for the Study of Rescue and Altruism in the Holocaust, asked if they would be willing to have their father’s story be part of a traveling exhibition titled “Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats.”
“There was an exhibit on Varian Fry at D.C.’s Holocaust museum,” Saul recalls. “The curator there told me if I was doing an exhibit about diplomats who worked as rescuers, then I had to include Bingham, so I started researching.” What Saul learned was that Bingham had issued visas for Jews being held in Les Milles concentration camp near Marseille during the time he was stationed there. He also learned Bingham had detailed conditions in the detention centers as well as concentration camps in France. “I didn’t understand the extent Father was involved in saving lives or how many lives he saved until I met Eric Saul,” Endicott says. “We’ve been told that Father saved between 1,000 and 2,000 lives.”
Saul’s call spurred Endicott’s youngest brother, William, to start looking for documents that might shed light on their father. Reaching into a dark closet behind the fireplace of their childhood farmhouse home in 1996, he discovered a stash of letters. Almost all were from people who had narrowly escaped being sent to concentration camps—and were thanking Bingham for the visas he gave them.