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French village inherits fortune from Austrian who fled Nazis

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.

French village inherits fortune from Austrian who fled Nazis
The village of Chambon-sur-Lignon in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France. Photo: AFP

Eric Schwam, who died aged 90 on December 25th, wrote the surprise gift into his will for Chambon-sur-Lignon, located on a remote mountain plateau in the Auvergne area of southeast France that historically has a large Protestant community known for offering shelter to those in need.

“It's a large amount for the village,” Mayor Jean-Michel Eyraud told AFP.

He declined to specify the amount since the will was still being sorted out, but his predecessor, who told a local website that she met with Schwam and his wife twice to discuss the gift, said it was around two million euros.

Schwam and his family arrived in 1943 and were hidden in a school for the duration of the war, and remained until 1950.

He later studied pharmacy and married a Catholic woman from the region near Lyon, where they lived.

Eyraud said 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 honoured as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre.

Over the centuries the 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.

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HISTORY

V-J Day Kiss woman passes on

The woman whose participation in an impromptu kiss celebrating the end of the war with Japan has died on Thursday after a brief illness at the age of 92.

V-J Day Kiss woman passes on
Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Magazine

Greta Zimmer Friedman was a 21-year-old dental assistant whose Austrian parents both died in the Holocaust.  She had arrived  with her three sisters to the USA at the age of 15.  Ironically, the photo was taken by a German who also lived in the USA, Alfred Eisenstaedt, using a Leica IIIa.

When the news of Japan's unconditional surrender was announced on August 14, 1945 people spontaneously rushed into the streets of New York to celebrate.

Caught up in the celebrations was the young Austrian girl, wearing a nurse's uniform, in the embrace of a sailor, George Mendonsa.

Her son Joshua Friedman says his mother recalled it all happening in an instant.

“It wasn't that much of a kiss,” Friedman said in an interview with the Veterans History Project in 2005. “It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn't a romantic event.”

Some have suggested the story smacks of sexual assault, but Friedman said his mother, born in Wiener Neustadt, would respectfully disagree.

“My mom… understood the premise that you don’t have a right to be intimate with a stranger on the street,” he told the Daily News, but added: “She didn’t assign any bad motives to George in that circumstance, that situation, that time.”


CBS News reunited Friedman (left) and Mendonsa in Times Square in 2012. Photo: CBS News

The photo captured an instant in time which has become iconic, symbolizing an important event affecting many subsequent generations.

Other photos taken at the same time show in the background another smiling woman in a nurse's uniform who was on a date with Mendonsa, and who subsequently became his wife.

Friedman went on to marry a doctor, Misha Friedman.  Eisenstaedt, who was also Jewish, passed in 1995 after a long and successful career photographing for Life magazine, culminating in pictures he took of the then-president Clinton and his family.

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