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Austrian Jew Leaves Fortune to French Town that Saved His Life

January 31, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Eric Schwam was one of over 3,000 Jews saved by the residents in one small French town.

When Vienna-born Jew Eric Schwam recently passed away at the age of 90, he left an unusual bequest. He left the small fortune he’d managed to save up in a lifetime working in the pharmaceutical field to Le Chambon sur Lignon, a town of fewer than 2,500 people in southeastern France. Eighty years ago, the residents of Le Chambon sur Lignon saved the life of Mr. Schwam as well as thousands of other Jewish refugees during the darkest days of the Holocaust.

Mr. Schwam was just thirteen years old when he arrived in Le Chambon sur Lignon with his parents and grandmother in 1943. Little is publicly known about the family’s journey other than the fact that when they arrived in France they were imprisoned in France’s notorious Rivesaltes Camp, near France’s border with Spain. France’s Nazi collaborationist Vichy government banished approximately 8,000 Jews, Gypsies and other “undesirables” to Rivesaltes. Many were sent from there to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The camp was closed in 1942 and most of the remaining Jewish prisoners were sent to their deaths; it’s not known how the Schwam family managed to escape.

They made their way to Le Chambon sur Lignon in 1943. Perhaps other Jewish refugees told them that the town was fast becoming known as a haven for desperate Jews. Local residents welcomed the Schwam family and sheltered them in a schoolhouse for two long years, until the end of the war. The grateful Schwam family joined thousands of other Jews who were hidden and sheltered by the town’s citizens – and people who lived in small villages nearby to Le Chambon sur Lignon, often at great personal risk.

Le Chambon sur Lignon had been actively resisting the pro-Nazi government for years. When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940 and installed the collaborationist Vichy Regime governing much of the country, Le Chambon sur Lignon’s local Pastor, Andre Trocme, and his wife Magda urged the townspeople to hide Jews. Pastor Trocme called Jews “the people of the Bible,” and built on a strong tradition of respecting Jews that had long flourished in the area. Word spread that the town was a haven for persecuted Jews. Jewish refugees began making their way from across Europe to Le Chambon sur Lignon and its surrounding villages.

When France started deporting its Jews to death camps in 1942, Pastor Trocme stepped up his rhetoric, and encouraged his congregants to shelter Jews, hiding them from Nazi and Vichy authorities who were now seeking to arrest them and send them to concentration camps and death camps. Many local residents stepped up to the task.

Magda and Andre Trocme and Nonviolent Resistance | Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore CollegeAndre and Magda Trocme

Andre Trocme’s wife Madga discreetly identified local families who were willing to shelter Jews in their homes or on their property. Townspeople hid Jews in their homes. Local farmers sheltered Jews in their barns and other buildings. Volunteers waited at local railway stations to identify and greet Jewish refugees and ferry them to Le Chambon sur Lignon and safety. One local religious leader, Pastor Edouard Theis, led Jews on secret journeys to the Swiss border where he worked with Protestant activists in Switzerland to smuggle Jews to safety there.

“Do the will of God, not of men,” Pastor Trocme kept urging his congregants, imploring them to keep sheltering and aiding Jews.

This work was incredibly dangerous. Soon, Le Chambon sur Lignon was a major target for the Vichy authorities who were tasked with rounding up Jews – and with punishing anyone who helped hide desperate Jewish families. Matters came to a head in 1942 when Vichy policemen entered the town. “These people came here for help and for shelter,” Pastor Trocme told them, refusing to divulge the whereabouts of the town’s hidden Jews. More visits from Vichy authorities followed and tensions in the town increased. “Do the will of God, not of men,” Pastor Trocme kept urging his congregants, imploring them to keep sheltering and aiding Jews.

In February 1943, Nazi officials arrested Pastor Trocme and several other town leaders. One of the men arrested was Daniel Trocme, Pastor Andre Trocme’s brother. Daniel Trocme ran a children’s home in Le Chambon sur Lignon, which he’d used to shelter Jewish refugees. For this “crime,” the Nazis deported Daniel Trocme to Buchenwald where he perished.

Pastor Andre Trocme was held in a camp near the historic town of Limoges for five weeks. Ordered to sign a document promising to uphold all Vichy government orders, he refused. Even though their religious leader was absent from the town, the residents of Le Chambon sur Lignon and nearby villages continued their vital work shielding Jews.

Miraculously, Pastor Andre Trocme was released. He returned to Le Chambon sur Lignon and resumed his activities helping Jews, though in a much more secretive way than before. children saved in Le Chambon sur Lignon

After the end of the war, Eric Schwam’s parents returned to Vienna. His father was a doctor; perhaps he planned to resume working there. Eric remained in Le Chambon sur Lignon, living in the town until 1950, when he moved to the French city of Lyon to study pharmacy. Mr. Schwam doesn’t seem to have been closely connected with the Jewish community during his life – he married a non-Jewish French woman and they had no children – but he seemingly harbored a life-long attachment to the town that saved him and so many other Jews.

A few years ago Mr. Schwam and his wife got in touch with Le Chambon sur Lignon’s mayor, Jean-Michel Eyraud, about the possibility of leaving their savings to the town in their will. Mr. Schwam passed away on December 25, 2020. A few weeks later, his executor got in touch with the town, letting them know that Mr. Schwam, who was by then a widower, had indeed left his life savings to the town.

“It’s a large amount for the village,” Mayor Eyraud told reporters. The bequest is thought to total as much as 2 million Euros – about 2.4 million dollars. Following Mr. Schwam’s wishes, Le Chambon sur Lignon plans to use it to help fund programs for children’s educational and other youth activities.

Mr. Schwan’s gift isn’t the only recognition the town received for sheltering thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem named Andre and Magda Trocme – along with 32 other residents of Le Chambon sur Lignon – “Righteous Among the Nations” for risking their lives to save Jews. It’s thought that between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews were ultimately sheltered by town residents during the Holocaust.

In 1998, Yad Vashem presented the entire town with a special Diploma of Honor for their bravery and humanity during those years of darkness and terror.

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