Did you see this news story from last week? It warmed my heart, and it has something to teach us…
An Austrian man who fled the Nazis with his family during World War II has bequeathed a large part of his fortune to the French village whose residents hid them from persecution for years.
Eric Schwam, who died at age 90 on December 25, wrote the surprise gift into his will for Chambon-sur-Lignon, located on a remote mountain plateau in southeast France that historically has a large Protestant community known for offering shelter to those in need.
Schwam and his family arrived in 1943 and were hidden in a school for the duration of the war. They stayed until 1950.
He later studied pharmacy and married a Catholic woman from the region near Lyon, where they lived.
A local government official said that Mr. Schwam asked that the money be used for educational and youth initiatives, in particular scholarships.
Around 2,500 Jews were taken in and protected during World War II by Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose residents were honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center.
Over the centuries this village has taken in a wide range of people fleeing religious or political persecution, from priests driven into hiding during the French Revolution to Spanish republicans during the civil war of the 1930s, and more recently migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
As it turns out, Mr. Schwam’s estate will end up being a gift of approximately $2.4 million USD.
Honestly, I am more touched by this city’s kindness than I am about the gift.
This town didn’t take in this Jewish family thinking, “What’s in it for us?” They welcomed the stranger because it was the right thing to do. But it wasn’t just this one Jewish family, it was 2,500 people—that’s as many residents as were living in the town at the time. This means that they welcomed one refugee for every citizen! I think Israel has it right, this town is definitely numbered among the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
This town knew something about oppression. This town was predominantly protestant (like us Lutherans) and had faced persecution by the Roman Catholic majority of France over the years.
The people of Le Chambon acted upon their conviction that it was their duty to help their “neighbors in need.”
Many factors joined together to create this generous spirit: the history of Protestant persecution as a religious minority in Catholic France; empathy for Jews as the people of the Old Testament and a shared biblical heritage; and, last but not least, the powerful leadership and example of the pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocme.
That’s right, the local pastor of this town led the charge to hide and save as many Jewish people as he could.
Of course, the government suspected that something “big” was happening in the town of Chambon and they investigated.
At one point, the authorities demanded that the pastor cease his activities. His response was clear-cut: “These people came here for help and for shelter. I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock… I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.
May we only see human beings when gaze upon others. Lord, let the silly and superficial things that divide us fall away so that we can truly see the image of God in each other.
God grant us the vision to see those who are in need and the will to serve our desperate neighbor regardless of their background or ethnicity. Amen.