Holocaust Survivor, Eric Schwam and His 2 Million Euro Gift

Karma holds that if you do something good for someone, something good will also happen to you. This seemed to hold true for the people in the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

In 2020, Austrian man Eric Schwam left over 2 million Euros to the town in his will. It was a thank you to the people of the town for protecting him for over two years during the Holocaust. 

Vichy France

After German forces overran France in 1940, the Nazi regime established a new government that was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. The Vichy government, as it became known, began rounding up Jews, Roma, and other “undesirables.” 

They started to send them to concentration camps in a similar fashion that the Germans did. These populations were sent to camps like Revesaltes in southern France. There, they would be held in ghettos until they were to be deported to German concentration camps. 

Eric Schwam Arrives in France

Eric Schwam was a young Jewish man from Austria. During the 1940s, he was imprisoned in Rivesaltes with his family. 

Schwam’s parents were both highly educated. They helped form a library at the camp and ease the suffering of those around them.  Little is known about how the Schwam family wound up there, but they were held at Rivesaltes until the camp closed in 1942. 

When German forces moved into the previously unoccupied south of France in 1942, they deported the remaining prisoners and closed the camp as a detention center. It is unknown how the Schwam family escaped the fate of a German concentration camp.

It is theorized that they were rescued by a young Swiss social worker named Friedel Reiter. Instead of being sent to Germany, the family arrived in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in early 1943. 

The Refugee Village

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a small French village about 250 miles from Rivesaltes. The town was a haven for Jewish refugees during World War II

From December 1940 to September 1944, the town was able to assist over 5000 refugees, including 3500 Jewish people fleeing Nazi oppression. The efforts were led by a local pastor named Andre Trocme and his wife Magda.

They believed that helping the oppressed was the right thing to do. He would urge his congregation to “do the will of God, not of man.” He urged them to assist in aiding the refugees and not give in to the hatred of the Vichy and Nazi governments. 

Townsfolk found ways to aid refugees however they could. Some hid refugees in their homes or barns. Others met refugees at the train station and smuggled them into town. 

Another pastor, Eduoard Theis, would work with Protestant activists in Switzerland to organize a system that smuggled Jewish refugees across the border. The townsfolk tried to make life as normal as possible for the refugees.

They offered youth groups and school classes, and even encouraged Jews to practice their faith. By the time the Schwam family arrived in 1943, word had spread far that the town was a welcome place for Jewish refugees. 

The town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France

The Empire Strikes Back

While spreading the news was promising for those fleeing oppression, it inevitably fell upon the ears of the oppressors as well. 

As the occupation of Southern France spread, Vichy and Nazi forces marched upon the town. They demanded that townsfolk turn over any Jews they were hiding, threatening harsh punishment for anyone who resisted. 

Trocme and Theis, along with the headmaster of the local school, were arrested for their efforts to shelter Jewish refugees. The men were released shortly after, but they were forced into hiding themselves. 

Many other leaders in the community would also be arrested, including Trocme’s relative Daniel Trocme. He would be sent to the Lublin concentration camp and die at the hands of SS officers there. 

Schwam Leaves a Fortune

Although some refugees were found by Nazi forces and deported, many survived because of the acts of kindness displayed by the townspeople of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. 

Schwam’s family would return to Austria after the war. Eric himself would remain in the town until 1950. After leaving Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, he moved to the nearby city of Lyon to study pharmacy, where he would meet his wife. 

Over the next 70 years, Eric Schwam would accumulate a small fortune in the business of pharmacy. As he neared the end of his life, Schwam’s mind returned to the small village that had kept his family alive during their darkest years. 

He began to inquire about how he and his wife could leave their fortune to the town when he died. He even met with the mayor of the town to discuss the details. 

No formal plan was ever established, but in December 2020 Schwam passed away. It was revealed that his will granted over 2 million euros to the town, encouraging them to use it for education and youth services. 

Righteous to the Nations

The town received praise from Barack Obama in 2009 during the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. 

At the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, recognized the town and many of its residents as “Righteous to the Nations” for their efforts in saving Jewish refugees. They are no strangers to being thanked for their selfless efforts. 

However, nobody in the town knew of Schwam or what had happened to him, so the gift was a surprise. Since they received the gift, the town has been attempting to uncover more about the story of a young Austrian boy who was rescued by the kind acts of strangers in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. 


Alt Miller, Yvette. “Austrian Jew Leaves Fortune to French Town that Saved His Life.” Aish. https://aish.com/austrian-jew-leaves-fortune-to-french-town-that-saved-his-life/

McSweeney, Eoin and Arnaud Siad. “Austrian man leaves fortune to French village that saved his family from Nazis.” CNN, January 30, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/30/europe/fortune-french-village-nazi-intl/index.html

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “LE CHAMBON-SUR-LIGNON.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/le-chambon-sur-lignon

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