In 1943, Eric Schwam, his parents, and his grandmother arrived in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a very small town in south-east France, as refugees.
Originally from Vienna, the Jewish family were removed from Austria by the Nazis and held in an internment camp in Rivesaltes until 1942. They, along with hundreds of other Jewish refugees, were sheltered by the town’s citizens through the rest of WWII, hidden in the village’s school. Only 11 when he arrived, Schwam left the village after the war as an adult—though he remained in France, married, became a doctor, and lived the rest of his life in Lyon.
Schwam passed away on Christmas Day 2020, at the age of 90. In early January, a notary contacted Le Chambon-sur-Lignon with surprising news: Schwam’s estate included an exceptionally large bequest to the town. The number is being held in confidence until things are final, but it is at least $2.4 million.
“He was a very discreet gentleman and he didn’t want a lot of publicity about his gesture,” said Denise Vallat, culture and communication assistant at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
Jean-Michel Eyraud, Mayor of the village, said that the money will be used to fund youth initiatives and education. Hopefully, it will keep people aware and proud of the massive generosity that is at the heart of the town.
WWII was not the first time Le Chambon-sur-Lignon has opened its gates to those fleeing lethal persecution. In the 17th century, the town sheltered Huguenots (Protestants) from laws requiring their execution. In WWII, it was two Protestant pastors—the spiritual descendants of those refugees—who organized the citizens to shelter between 3000 and 5000 Jewish refugees, transporting many across the border to Switzerland and safety. And today, the village shelters refugees from war zones in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.