Jewish man bequeaths nearly £2m to French village that sheltered him from the Nazis as a child

·3 min read
Eric Schwan was sheltered in the village as a teenage boy, together with his parents and maternal grandmother - Screenshot of LCI video
Eric Schwan was sheltered in the village as a teenage boy, together with his parents and maternal grandmother - Screenshot of LCI video

A Jewish Austrian has left a bequest believed to be worth nearly £2m to the French village that sheltered him from the Nazis during the Second World War.

Eric Schwan, who died on December 25 at the age of 90, left a large part of his fortune to Chambon-sur-Lignon, a remote mountain village in south-east France that took in some 2,500 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

The exact value of the bequest has not been made public, but a former mayor of the village told a local website it was more than €2m (£1.8m).

“It’s a considerable sum for the village,” Jean-Michel Eyraud, the current mayor, said.

A small village of fewer than 2,500 inhabitants perched on a mountain plateau, Chambon-sur-Lignon is famous for the extraordinary courage of its people during the Vichy regime and Nazi occupation. The village's largely Protestant community is known for giving shelter to those in need.

Very few documents exist about Eric Schwam's younger life
Very few documents exist about Eric Schwam's younger life

Led by the local pastor André Trocmé, the villagers protected thousands of Jews from the Nazis, hiding them in private homes and farms. When patrols came to search the village, the Jews would be hidden in the surrounding forests. When the soldiers left, the villagers would signal it was safe to come out by singing.

The village has been recognised by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial as “Righteous Among the Nations”, and 160 of its wartime residents were awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian honour.

Schwan was one of those who sheltered in the village as a teenage boy, together with his parents and maternal grandmother.

The only son of an Austrian Jewish couple, Schwan was a discreet man and little is known about his war-time experiences other than that he and his family spent some time in the Camp de Rivesaltes, the notorious internment camp near Perpignan where Jewish people were held under the Vichy regime.

Some 2,250 people, including 110 children, were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz from the camp in 1942.

It is not clear how Schwan and his family escaped Rivesaltes, but from February 1943 they were sheltered from the Nazis by the villagers of Chambon-sur-Lignon.

After the war Schwan studied medical biology in Lyon, and married Colette Ponthus, a Catholic woman from the region who died in January last year. The couple were childless.

The village of Chambon-sur-Lignon
The village of Chambon-sur-Lignon

The village says it will honour his request to remain a private person in death as in life. “This is how the inhabitants of the Plateau, who saved these Jewish children, have always led their lives,” Denis Vallat of the village hall told France Bleu radio.

The village said Schwan had asked that the money be used to fund scholarships and other educational and youth initiatives.

Eliane Wauquiez-Motte, a former mayor, said Schwan and his wife first approached her about making a bequest in 2013, when a memorial to the villagers who sheltered the Jews opened.

“The history came back to him with the memorial and that's what decided his gesture. Well, that's my interpretation, he never expressed it that way. He was a very upright man,” she told France Bleu.

“To my knowledge, they didn’t come to Chambon-sur-Lignon. Or if they did, they did not make themselves known,” she told La Commère 43, a local website, in a separate interview.

“This sum is, of course, much greater than others received in similar bequests, from former hidden children or their descendants,” the village newsletter said, announcing the bequest.

“But this act of generosity is part of the same desire for discretion. Like an echo of the modesty and discretion of those who took in the refugees during the war.”

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