The new George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, tells the thrilling story of U.S. military personnel who during World War II risked their lives to rescue paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Picasso, and Chagall that the Nazis had stolen.
But for Connecticut civil rights attorney Bill Bingham, the story is one of tragic irony. His father, Hiram Bingham IV, was a dissident U.S. diplomat who helped rescue Marc Chagall after the Roosevelt administration abandoned the painter—the same administration that later made such efforts to recover Chagall’s paintings. Save the artwork, abandon the artist? It’s a peculiar legacy, as Bingham explains in this exclusive interview.
JNS: Is it true that Chagall was initially reluctant to leave Europe?
Bingham: Chagall had lived in France for most of the previous two decades. Like many Jews, he felt bound to it by family ties, by the familiar sights and sounds and pleasures, and of course by the general uncertainty that goes with starting a new life halfway across the world. So when the pro-Nazi Vichy government took over in 1940, he wasn’t immediately ready to make the break.
JNS: How did your father come into contact with him?
Bingham: Dad was a vice-consul at the American consulate in Marseilles. Officially he was supposed to implement the Roosevelt administration’s visa policy, which was basically to look for reasons to reject visa applications from Jewish refugees. But unofficially, Dad was actively helping Varian Fry, an American journalist who came to France in 1940 to rescue refugees.
JNS: How did the U.S. government respond to Fry’s mission?
Bingham: Under pressure from Eleanor Roosevelt, the president very reluctantly agreed to let Fry rescue a few hundred prominent European intellectuals and artists. FDR could accept the idea of saving the ‘cream of European civilization.’ Helping ordinary Jewish refugees was a different story, unfortunately.
JNS: What exactly did your father do to help Fry?
Bingham: He surreptitiously issued travel documents for refugees—documents that the other consular officials refused to approve. He hid refugees in his home when they were fleeing from the Nazis. He even helped smuggle the famous novelist Lion Feuchtwanger out of a French forced-labor camp—he had Feuchtwanger dress in women’s clothes and pretend to be my dad’s mother-in-law. It wasn’t just Fry and Bingham—Fry built a network of several-dozen rescue activists, some of them French, some of them American expats who were living in Europe.
JNS: So what happened to Chagall?
Bingham: In the fall of 1940, the Museum of Modern Art applied to the State Department for a visa for Chagall. The museum promised that it would have exhibits of Chagall’s paintings and would make sure that he could support himself. But that wasn’t enough, apparently. The administration stalled and stalled on the application. Months went by. Finally Fry took Chagall to see my father. Fry wrote in his diary that on the spot, my father "got him an immigration visa with no affidavits at all. In fact, all he had in his dossier was a letter from me [Fry]."
The delays were almost fatal. Because of all the stalling, Chagall was still in France when the Vichy police carried out a huge roundup of Jews in April 1941, and Chagall was imprisoned.
Fry and my father personally intervened to get him out. Chagall and his wife, Bella, left Spain on May 7, 1941. If it had been left up to the Roosevelt administration, he might never have gotten out.”
JNS: And his paintings?
Bingham: The Chagalls managed to take some of the artwork with them. But some of it was left behind. And of course some of it was in museums or private collections in Europe—which is how the Monuments Men ended up finding some of it, three years later.
JNS: Why did Fry’s rescue mission come to an end?
Bingham: The Nazis and the Vichy French complained to the Roosevelt administration about what Fry was doing. The United States wasn’t yet in the war and it still maintained relations with Nazi Germany. So Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent a cable to all the American consuls in France, ordering them to refrain from helping Fry, since he was trying to ‘evade the laws of governments with which this country maintains friendly relations.’ Hull also sent a cable directly to Fry, demanding that he immediately return to the U.S. Fry and my father ignored Hull. So the administration canceled Fry’s passport, forcing him to leave France. And it transferred my father out of Marseilles—first to Portugal, then to South America. That ensured he would be far away from any more opportunities to help Jewish refugees get to the United States. Altogether, they saved about two thousand refugees. They could have saved many more if the administration had just left them alone.
JNS: How do you feel about the work that the Monuments Men carried out?
Bingham: They deserve credit for what they did. I’m glad they rescued all those precious paintings and artifacts. But I’m troubled that in a case like that of Chagall, the Roosevelt administration was so interested in saving the artwork and not very concerned about saving the artist.
And the other irony is this—they were so interested in saving artwork, but if their abandonment of Chagall had led to his death, think of all the great works of art that never would have come into being—from the Chagall murals in Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera House, to the stained glass windows at the Hadassah hospital, in Jerusalem. So in a sense, Fry and my father and their comrades not only saved lives but did a great service for the art world, and all of humanity, for generations to come.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C., and author of 15 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. The latest is FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.