An Austrian man who died in December has left an undisclosed fortune to the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to thank residents for hiding his family from Nazis during World War II.
Erich Schwam, a Jewish refugee who arrived in the village with his mother and father in 1943, bequeathed a sum thought to be at least a few hundred thousand euro to the commune in south-central France, according to the notary in charge of his will.
“We are extremely honored and we will use the sum according to Mr. Schwam’s will,” the town’s deputy mayor, Denise Vallat, told CNN on Saturday.
In the will, dated November 9, 2020, Schwam wrote that he wanted “to thank them [the village residents] for the welcome many extended me in the field of education.” He asked for the money to be used to fund scholarships and schools in the village.
Large contributions will also be made to three foundations supporting health workers, children with leukemia and animal rights, according to a press release from the town hall.
Le Chambon and nearby villages welcomed Jewish refugees, mostly children, after 1940, according to the town hall website. Barack Obama mentioned the village in his remarks at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance Ceremony in April 2009 and Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, awarded the commune the title of Righteous in 1990.
Schwam’s father was a doctor and his mother helped establish a library at the Rivesaltes camp, one of many set up by the Vichy regime to imprison Jews. Thousands were transported from there to Auschwitz, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Friedel Reiter, a young Swiss social worker who voluntarily helped refugees at the time, recorded the family’s information and it is likely she helped move them to Le Chambon when the Rivesaltes camp shut down in 1942, said the town hall.
When he was just 12, Schwam was taken into the care of Secours Suisse, a sub-sector of the Red Cross of Switzerland which specialized in helping children during the war, where his mother also worked. Schwam registered on a pharmacy course at the University of Leon in 1950, graduating in 1957.
The town hall is unsure whether he returned to Le Chambon regularly and is appealing for more information about “the little Viennese Jewish boy” who was so generous more than 75 years later.
“We did not know Mr. Schwam, we are now trying to establish who he was and what happened to him here,” said Vallat.