Hero of conscience

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(Host) A recent movie at the Green Mountain Film Festival has commentator Allen Gilbert thinking about the challenge of being a hero of conscience during wartime.

(Gilbert) Montpelier’s Savoy Theater is a cultural gem, and its Green Mountain Film Festival is an eagerly anticipated mud season event. I took in the film “Amen” during the festival this year. It’s a film by the Greek director Costa-Gavras, who likes to explore complicated political themes – such as the Greek military coup in “Z,” or the Pinochet takeover in Chile in “Missing.”

In “Amen,” Costa-Gavras examines the Catholic Church’s reluctance to speak out against the genocide of Europe’s Jews during World War II. He tells the true story of a German SS officer who saw the killing at Auschwitz and tried to alert church leaders to the murder of Jews. The church was silent. The pope at the time, Pius XII, allegedly said, “I cannot do anything for them. I pray for them.”

As Americans, we have a tendency to think that we would not have remained silent in the face of such atrocities. Pius has been widely criticized for his inaction. Yet the story of American diplomat Harry Bingham should make us all pause and consider what moral courage means. You’re probably heard of Harry Bingham’s father, Hiram Bingham. Hiram Bingham was the Yale historian who “discovered” the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu in 1911. But you probably haven’t heard of Harry Bingham. He was a U.S. diplomat in Vichy France. Bingham recognized the Nazis’ genocide plans early in the war, and he resisted them. He did whatever he could to save Jews. He issued visas, he confronted Nazi officers, he hid Jews. When necessary, he falsified papers. He was our Raoul Wallenberg, a diplomat who refused to turn a blind eye to Hitler’s plans.

But the U.S. State Department didn’t like what Bingham was doing. The official U.S. stance at the time was that there was no “Jewish problem,” and we refused entry to many refugees who fled to our country. The Roosevelt administration’s reluctance to recognize Hitler’s plans, and our refusal to accept Jewish refugees, represent one of the very darkest hours in U.S. history. Of course, we “officially” began to recognize the inhumanity of what had happened to the Jews when U.S. troops entered towns such as Dachau, outside of Munich, and discovered the concentration camps.

But sadly, Bingham wasn’t declared a hero for his courageous actions. In fact, for more than 50 years the U.S. State Department resisted any attempt to honor him. He had been a dangerous maverick who was eventually demoted and left the American diplomatic service. Harry Bingham died in 1988, unheralded. But an effort is now underway to change that. Israel has recognized him as a “Righteous Gentile,” and the Postal Service has been asked to issue a commemorative stamp on the 100th anniversary of his birth this July. A postage stamp seems such a small gesture for a man who is believed to have saved more than 2,000 lives. It is not easy to be a hero of conscience during a time of war.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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