World War II

French village inherits fortune from Austrian Jew it sheltered from Nazis

Chambon-sur-Lignon has a history of offering shelter to those in need
Chambon-sur-Lignon has a history of offering shelter to those in need JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK AFP

An Austrian man who fled the Nazis with his family during World War II has remembered in his will a French village whose residents hid them from persecution.

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Eric Schwam died aged 90 on 25 December last year. His will contained a surprise gift for Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small town on a remote mountain plateau in southeast France.

"It's a large amount for the village," Mayor Jean-Michel Eyraud said, while declining to say exactly how much since the will is still being sorted out.

But the former mayor told local France3 website that she had met Schwam and his wife on two occasions to discuss the gift and that it was around 2 million euros.

A story of survival

Chambon-sur-Lignon has a large Protestant community, and during the Second World War it symbolised French protestantism's defence of victims of Nazism, hiding many Jewish children to protect them from deportation.

Schwam and his family arrived in the village in 1943 and were hidden in a school until the war ended. They remained there until 1950.

He later studied pharmacy and married a Catholic woman from the region near Lyon, where they lived.

“Around 15 years ago, he came to see the mayor and told her he wanted to leave Chambon something in his will. But then we had no more news," said Denise Vallat, head of culture and communications at the town hall.

“Eric Schwam had no children, he was very discrete and didn’t want publicity over this,” she added.

The town hall carried out research and found the first trace of Erich and his parents dated back to 1942 at the Rivesaltes camp in the Pyrénées-Orientales.

"His mother set up a library in the camp and the father worked in a maternity hospital in Elne. The camp closed in November 1942 and the first trace of the family in Chambon dates from February 1943," Vallat said.

"We don't know when exactly or how the family arrived in France [but] we know that the family survived, and the parents returned to Austria."

Educational and youth initiatives

Chambon's mayor said Schwam asked that the money be used for educational and youth initiatives, especially scholarships.

The village of Chambon-sur-Lignon took in and protected as many as 5,000 Jews during World War II.

It is the only community in France to have received the honour of "Righteous Among the Nations" by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre.

Over the centuries the village has taken in a wide range of people fleeing religious or political persecution, from priests driven into hiding during the French Revolution to Spanish republicans during the 1930s civil war.

More recently, the village has welcomed migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

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