New U.S. Stamps Honor Friends of Jews, Israel

On May 30, the United States Postal Service issued a series of new stamps honoring six career State Department diplomats who earned the gratitude of this nation for taking “risks to advance humanitarianism…[and] peace,” even if their actions put themselves “in harm’s way.”

Words of high praise — nonetheless inadequate in the case of honoree Hiram Bingham IV, who served as U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, France, during World War II. In 1940 and 1941 — against the official policies of the United States, which was steadfastly refusing to open Lady Liberty’s doors to persecuted European Jews — Bingham issued visas and false passports to Jews and other refugees, assisting in their escape. He even occasionally sheltered them in his home — risking not only his career but his life, as the Gestapo and SS operated freely in collaborationist Vichy France.

Bingham is credited with saving more than 2,500 people from deportation to death camps. Moreover, working together with fellow American hero journalist Varian Fry, he rescued such famous figures as artists Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Otto Meyerhoff, historian Hannah Arendt and authors Franz Werfel and Hans Habe.

As punishment for his continued defiance of Washington — and helping people the Roosevelt administration and the anti-immigrant WASP establishment that dominated the State Department was abandoning — Bingham was unceremoniously yanked out of France in 1941 and posted to Portugal and then Argentina. In 1945, he was forced to retire from the U.S. Foreign Service.

Although neither Fry nor Bingham received the credit due them in their lifetimes, Fry was eventually the first of the two to receive some measure of posthumous recognition, when in 1995, he became the first and only United States citizen to join Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler among the non-Jews designated as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Fry — also known as “the American Schindler” or “the artists’ Schindler” — was also accorded “Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel” in 1998. Finally, he achieved celebrity of sorts when Barbra Streisand co-produced the 2001 made-for-television movie, “Varian’s War,” starring William Hurt. (In that movie, Bingham is relegated to a mere footnote and even suffered the ignominy of having his named changed to “Harry.”)

Bingham rarely spoke of his wartime activities, concealing them even from his own family. Only after his death in 1988 (Fry died a young man in 1967) did his son discover letters, documents and photographs hidden behind a chimney in their home. The cache revealed Bingham’s struggle to save German and Jewish refugees from death — facts long suppressed by the United States government.

Belatedly, Bingham’s bravery was recognized by the United Nations in 2000 and, ultimately, by the American Foreign Service Association, which paid tribute to him with a special “courageous diplomat” award for “constructive dissent,” presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The eight-year campaign to issue a postage stamp in his honor met with success after gaining wide bipartisan support in Congress

Another stamp in this series honors Ambassador Philip C. Habib, a Lebanese Christian from Brooklyn who rose through the ranks of the foreign service to attain the posts of assistant secretary of state and undersecretary of state. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan called Habib out of retirement to serve as his special envoy to the Middle East at a time of growing tension between Israel and the PLO in southern Lebanon. When hostilities erupted into war engulfing Israel, Syria and Palestinian terrorists, Habib engaged in shuttle diplomacy and won the respect of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as he helped negotiate a truce. In 1982, Habib was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Habib deserves mention here because of his outspoken conviction that “the United States should support Israel. It’s a long-standing commitment, a commitment that goes through every administration since Truman, that we support the existence and security of Israel. Now, how, to what extent, on what terms at any given moment, those are subjects for discussion, debate, and reformulation. But the basic commitment is maintained.”

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Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethcial and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the University of Judaism. Bezalel Gordon is the former news director of the Israel Government Press Office and spokesperson for the Kahan Commission.


Stamp of Approval


A picture may be worth 1,000 words — but it will only cost you 37 cents. This month the U.S. Postal Service is issuing American Scientists commemorative stamps honoring two of the keenest Jewish minds of the 20th century: physicist Richard P. Feynman and mathematician John von Neumann.

Feynman, a free-spirited scientist, musician, linguist and bon vivant, shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics.

A native of Far Rockaway in Queens, New York, Feynman helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II, while still in his 20s. For nearly 30 years, he was a professor at Caltech, where he was equally famed for his path-breaking research as his spellbinding classroom lectures. He was also the subject of the movie “Infinity” and the play “QED.”

Caltech will celebrate the stamp issue on May 20 by screening a documentary featuring Feynman, who died in 1988 at the age of 69, and display his memorabilia and books, including his popular “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”

Feynman was honored in Far Rockaway on May 11 when the Postal Service released his stamp in a ceremony featuring drumming (one of his favorite recreations), readings from his popular works and the “renaming” of Comaga Avenue to Richard Feynman Way.

Von Neumann, born into a Jewish family in Budapest, was an innovator in quantum mechanics and game theory and is considered a chief architect of the computer age. He joined the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in 1933 as one of its original faculty and led the team that developed the pioneer IAS computer in the late 1940s.

A secular Jew, Von Neumann — who married his first wife, a Catholic, in 1930, and converted to her faith to placate her parents — passed on the specifications for his creation to the Weizmann Institute of Science, allowing it to build the first computer in Israel and the Middle East.

He played influential roles in the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and died in 1957 at the age of 53.

Also being recognized with his own stamp is lyricist E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, who is being honored in a separate Art series for “writing the lyrics to more than 600 songs distinguished by their intelligence, humanity and inventiveness,” according to the citation.

Born on New York’s Lower East Side of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Harburg is best known for his lyrics to “Cabin in the Sky,” “Bloomer Girl,” “Wizard of Oz” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” Among his most memorable songs are “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Each of the stamps features a portrait of the honoree and drawings illustrating his or her major contributions.