Eric Schwam, his parents and grandmother arrived in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small French village known for providing refuge since the 17th century— when it helped Huguenots escaping religious persecution—in 1943. A pastor and his wife had urged villagers to protect Jewish refugees from Nazi occupiers, as well as their Vichy French collaborators. Residents began to take in refugees, and the word spread, sometimes through human rights groups. The Schwams were hidden in a village school, the Guardian reports. With the help of the villagers, Schwam survived the war, living to age 90. He died last month, per the BBC, leaving behind a gesture of his gratitude to the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon: more than $2 million US. Schwam asked that the money go toward educational and youth initiatives, especially scholarships.
"He was a very discreet gentleman, and he didn't want a lot of publicity about his gesture," a village official said. "Little is known about the donor, but we did some research." The town learned that the family was from Vienna and that Schwam's father was a doctor. It's not clear how the Schwams came to be in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, but they might have been interned elsewhere in southern France first. They remained in the village of 2,500 until 1950, when they returned to Austria. Schwam then moved to the nearby city of Lyon to study pharmacy and married a woman from the area; they did not have children, and Schwam's wife died before he did. For protecting about 2,500 Jewish people during the war, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon has been recognized by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations. (The last surviving German similarly honored for saving Jews died last year.)