The remote village of Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France has received an unexpected donation of 2 million euros, a fortune for this small hamlet of 2,500 inhabitants.
Austrian Jew Erich Schwam bequeathed his inheritance to the town. The residents of Chambon hid him when he was a child during the Second World War.
Schwam died at the end of December at the age of 90 in Lyon, leaving no relatives behind.
“This really touched us a lot,” Denise Vallat, Culture Assistant, Chambon-sur-Lignon City Hall, told Euronews. “What we also need to know is that it’s the work of a lifetime. It is not a fortune that came just anyhow. And for us that’s very important.”
The deputy mayor and former history professor is trying to reconstruct the life of Schwam, who after the war moved to Lyon to study pharmacy and subsequently got married there.
In Chambon sur Lignon, only one person remembers him, Vallet says:
“He first went to the village school. We have the testimony of an old man who was with him at that time. This witness was the son of a couple of teachers. And the young Erich, according to him, often arrived early. He was alone in the schoolyard. And this boy’s parents would tell him to go downstairs and play with him because Erich looked very sad”.
Between 1,500 and 4,000 people, Jews and non-Jews, 30 per cent of whom were children, found refuge in this remote and wooded area of 500 square km, known as the plateau. A region where the tradition of hospitality was strong, between the two wars many holiday homes for city children were built there.
Floriane Barbier is in charge of Chambon-sur-Lignon memorial plateau.
“There are several elements, the two main ones are first of all a protective geography, the countryside, the mountains, the isolation of the big cities and then there is also the presence of Protestantism which is a religion that has a history of persecution in France. And so protestants understood what the Jews were experiencing at the end of the 1930s and in the 1940s.”
The whole area of the plateau received an extremely rare diploma from Israel awarded by the Yad Vashem memorial in 1990, which it shares with another village in the Netherlands.
As for Erich Schwam’s 2 million euros, which represents two-thirds of the municipality’s annual budget, the money will be used for youth projects and development, as he directly requested.